“I must go down to the seas again. . .” (John Masefield)
Some years ago, my Aunt Dorothy died during the middle of the night. She lived alone in Santa Monica but my brother lived in nearby Marina del Rey. My aunt was a person who lived a life of simplicity, who loved music, and who had a generous heart. I flew out to Los Angeles so that I could help my brother go through her things and clean out her apartment.
Everyone at some time needs to inventory the belongings of a loved one who has died. There are objects without a story. My aunt, for instance, had letters and pictures from persons whom neither I nor my brother knew. There were objects which bring a lost connection back with an unexpected force. Hanging from my aunt’s ceiling was a Southwestern style bell we had given her the previous Christmas. And there are bits and pieces of things which give insight into a person’s character. My aunt had an impressive collection of Native American literature and was educated and sympathetic in this area long before it became fashionable. She also had her music.
When someone dies as suddenly as my aunt did, those who follow find evidence of a life interrupted — books partially read, perhaps the one she was reading left open; a particular piece of music left in a tape player; a bill set out next to a checkbook. Projects never to be finished. It gives one pause. How often I set something out for tomorrow, all the while assuming I have a tomorrow?
She wanted to be cremated and have her ashes scattered on the ocean. There was a time when Catholics were not allowed cremation. Too much like hell, I suppose. But then Catholic cemeteries started to fill up so the rule was changed. Somehow for my aunt it was more appropriate. It certainly was more catholic because she now has returned to the universe and is a part of its rhythms.
When I went to Marina del Rey, I stayed at a motel about a mile from the beach. This meant that I would first run a good mile to get to the beach and a mile to get back. Once at the beach, I removed my running shoes and ran along the ocean’s edge. It is what I called my Homage to Chariots of Fire. After running a mile or two, I would stop then walk back the way I came, picking up a sockful of shells and, at some point, stopping to sit on a rock. It was at those moments that I sensed my aunt’s presence in the ocean’s rhythm. Something universal is in that sound and my aunt is a part of it.
When I left California a few days later, I thought I had done all the correct things as far as grieving is concerned. I thought I was finished mourning. I now know better
Grief like the ocean comes in waves and often, like a wave much larger than we thought, nearly knocks us off our feet. The initial anguish passes and we think we are done. Then a piece of music, a smell, a passing reference and the wave hits us again. In my case, the wave came from, of all things, the TV show Magnum P.I.
You may remember that show and the fact that it had two final seasons. The first one appeared to end with Magnum’s death. The public outcry was so strong that a second final season was created with a much happier ending.
In any case, I was watching the first final episode which included a John Denver song “Looking For Space”. Each time the song played, I felt a welling up of emotion. ‘This is crazy” I thought. But the emotion continued into the next day until I finally realized that my grief over Aunt Dorothy was not finished and that I had merely stuffed it away, only to have it triggered by John Denver and Thomas Magnum.
Four years after my aunt died, I was at the rock-perching meditation part of my run. I was thinking about my aunt and her music. It suddenly dawned on me that she had never heard my daughter play the French horn, something that would have been a source of great joy for her. That thought brought on an unexpected wave of grieving. Later I thought “It’s four years, for goodness sake.” But so it goes. Grieving never stops.
REFLECTION: What have you learned about grief?