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Befriend Your Grief (part 2)

In college, one of the courses I was required to take for my degree in Social Work was on Death and Dying. You mention death and dying and people have a tendency to scurry. I can honestly say, this was one of the best classes I had ever taken. The professor was well versed on death and dying. He was kind and eloquent. He was not scary or morbid. He taught us how it is different in every culture and how rituals were changing in our culture. Death was becoming a taboo subject. No one wanted to talk about it or see it. Death was becoming more sanitized. People were getting away from caring for their dying family members. He spoke of our culture and how death has changed from dying at home to dying in hospitals or nursing care facilities. He reminded us of how pissed people get if a “funeral procession of cars,” is driving slowly in front of them and they are delayed. God forbid, anyone should have to slow down and honor someone's funeral procession. Is it really that difficult to wait a few moments for it to slowly make its way to the cemetery? Slow down and take a pause. Maybe offer up a prayer for the person who passed and their grieving family and friends as you watch them slowly drive by.

We aren’t taught how to openly wail or show too much crying in public. We have to keep it all under wraps because people do not know how to handle the huge emotions of grief and death. These class lectures were rich and filled with wisdom. I did not know how it would serve me until I was steeped in my own grief when people close to me started to die.

While taking this course, I had to read books by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, one of the leading researchers on death at the time. I remember sitting in the library on the West Bank at the University of Minnesota reading one of her books. My great uncle had just passed away and I was going to be leaving shortly with my sisters on the long drive to Iowa to attend his funeral.

I literally felt his presence in the chair next to me as I was reading this book on terminally ill patients. He was sitting with his legs crossed, smiling his sweet smile, and letting me know he was ok. I could almost hear his greeting, “How do,” in his slight southern drawl. His soul lives on. Death is a transition from this life to the next. I was not afraid. This would be the first of many times that I had felt the presence of a loved one who had passed. My awareness of death and the afterlife was slowly shifting.

Great Uncle Albert, as far as I knew, had been farming this beloved land in Iowa, most of his life. He lovingly farmed the land that was in my mother’s family for generations. Just down the gravel road from his farm sits a little church where milestones were quite possibly marked throughout his life. He spent countless hours attending Sunday services, community gatherings, and now his life was being celebrated there at his funeral. He was laid to rest in the little graveyard adjacent to the church. The cycle of life and death in this moment of time was a very profound and enriching lesson for me. He lived, celebrated, and farmed this land and he was now coming to rest here, and he would become part of this land. Death finally made a little more sense to me in an incredibly beautiful and simple way. I was beginning to see the circle of life. He was elderly and it made sense that his time had come to pass away.

My first job out of college was not in Social Work. I had loans to pay and I needed a job. I was hired at an advertising agency in Edina. I met, worked with, and became close friends with Kelly. She was a beautiful person I loved to talk with and we shared our life, family, and job experiences, with each other. We had conversations about how good we had become at being Account Executives for this advertising agency. Our conversations would end up with a question similar to, “How good do you think we could be at jobs we actually loved doing where we could be helping people?

After a few years, Kelly left the agency to go and work for another agency. She eventually decided to quit advertising altogether and go back to school to get her teaching certificate. She became an English teacher at a high school in Minneapolis and was truly working at a job she loved. She had finally found her dream job and it was teaching high school English. She married the guidance counselor at the high school where she worked. They both taught abroad for 2 years in Seoul, Korea and loved it. She became pregnant while overseas and her mother begged her to come home to have her baby born here in the United States. They did come home and she gave birth to their son. They promised to stay in the States for a few years, but they had planned to go to Tanzania next to teach for a few years. They had been bitten by the bug of adventures in foreign lands and to continue teaching abroad. They were excited to bring their son with them and show him the world. God had a different plan.

Kelly, her 2 year old son, and her mother were driving to Duluth to visit her grandmother. They stopped on the way to have lunch at McDonalds. Kelly went into cardiac arrest. There just happened to be a table of paramedics having lunch right next to them. They tried to resuscitate her and she was airlifted to a hospital in St. Paul. The doctors had found a hole in her heart. The doctors were unable to bring her back to her former self. There was no brain activity and she was put on life support. I received a call from our former boss’s wife who was relaying this horrific information to me on the Tuesday before Easter in April of 1995. I was in shock.

Kelly was 32 years old. I was a few years older. We both had young sons. It was unbelievable and devastating news. How could this be? Young mothers were not supposed to die. She had a small child. I was a young mother with small children. It could happen to me. I could feel the loss, fear and the grief welling up in me. I had to go and see her before they unplugged her from life support on Good Friday.

My husband and I had to lie at the hospital in order to get in to see her because we were not her immediate family. I am so grateful her aunt suggested I lie so I was able to visit Kelly. We got off the elevator on the floor where she was and the first person we saw was her husband. I had only met him once when they had come over for dinner. He recognized us and walked over to Rick and I. He literally fell into our outstretched arms. I can still feel the weight of his grief and anguish giving way and trusting that Rick and I could hold him up. We both held him and the three of us sobbed. We listened to his devastating story.

He was able to gather his composure and peel himself away from our embrace. He wiped his tear streaked, unshaven, sleep deprived, face and with the weight of his sorrow, guided us wearily to her room to say our goodbyes. There was my beautiful friend Kelly, hooked up to life support. It is crazy what sticks in my mind from that visit. I can still remember her hands. She was a very animated storyteller and talked with her hands all the time. There they were, her double-jointed hands, I recognized them. They were very still. It was her body. But the spirit of her, the essence of her, her larger than life personality, was nowhere to be found. The machines pumped life into her because of her inability to do it herself. All I could hear was the machines and the pounding of my own heart. I had to find the courage and strength from somewhere deep inside of me, to whisper “goodbye." This was the first experience I had in losing a close friend that was near my age. I was bereft at this Wake Up call.

Her funeral was huge and it was at a very progressive Catholic Church in South Minneapolis. This church was very open and outspoken in their political beliefs. Its controversial nature was quite often written about in the paper. I was intrigued about attending a mass there at some point, but I was not imagining my first visit there to be a funeral for my friend. The first of three funerals within a very short period of time for young, beloved people in my life.

They had to move the service into the gymnasium of the school because the church could not handle the capacity of grievers attending her funeral. When you are young, a teacher in a large school, married to a counselor in the same school, and you are from the area, you draw a large crowd. They were loved by many.

Unfortunately, my husband was unable to attend the funeral with me because our boys had chickenpox. My sister, Mary joined me so I would not have to be there alone. I was grateful for her company. When her husband Chuck dropped her off at the back door of the church, I saw his thinning face and slightly diminished figure behind the wheel. I had a flash of knowing that he, too, was not long for this physical world. I knew that we would quite possibly be back to this same church in the not so distant future, for his funeral. He was 38 years old and had just been diagnosed with lung cancer a few months prior to Kelly's passing.

While I was sitting in the chair waiting for the funeral to begin, I started to cry. I was already crying, but the intensity of my crying gained momentum from reading the funeral brochure. Beautifully penned by Kelly. There was a picture of Kelly smiling and holding her beautiful son. The words written were excerpts from a letter written by Kelly and addressed to her students at the Seoul Foreign School. "I am a life that was changed. I can't possibly know your heart, or read your mind as you sit in this chair, but I have come to believe in a merciful and loving God, who DOES know your heart, and who cares deeply about your smallest hurt. Think about that." Her words matched perfectly with this present moment. I was shaking from trying to control all of the emotions that could no longer be controlled. Her picture, her words, this pain, reached into my soul and created a fissure. A long, narrow, splitting that began to open the floodgates. How can I possibly keep this under wraps? I was thinking, holy shit, the service hadn't even started, what is yet to be revealed to me and this feeling of being so incredibly opened and exposed by this grief?

I wasn't prepared. What was I thinking? I had definitely not brought enough Kleenex. I was asking too much of the handful I had stashed in my pocket as I left for the church that morning. The Kleenex had become a cherished commodity at this point. It had become a sodden clump in my hands saturated in tears and smudged mascara. I was not letting go of it. It had become my first line of defense as I tried desperately to hold onto something. It was losing its usefulness as I tried to mop up my dwindling ability to hold it together. The onslaught of tears continued. The readings and music chosen were incredibly touching. But the next reading was so beautiful. It was a letter, a thank you really, written by a friend of Kelly's. His wife was sharing this intimately revealing letter. He was unable to attend the service because he had just had a liver transplant. He was given a beautiful, life-saving gift. He was the recipient of Kelly's liver. He had dreamt of Kelly after his surgery. She was running through an orchard, in a white dress, laughing, smiling, and free. She was letting us all know she was ok. I didn't know at the time, but now I have come to understand, that perhaps it was not just a dream. But was actually a visitation from Kelly. It was all so very, powerfully, moving. I am sure by this time, I was using my sleeves to mop up my face from the Niagara Falls pouring from my eyes, nose, and to stifle my sobs.

At the same time of this incredible reading, Kelly’s son was crying uncontrollably from being held against his will on someone’s lap. He wanted down. I understood his need to flee. It was almost unbearable listening to her son’s crying and thinking of the loss this little boy would have to endure without his beautiful mother. Once the person let him climb down from her lap he was allowed to run. He started to run throughout the gymnasium. The cacophony of sounds made by his tiny dress shoes echoed throughout the place. That sound was combined with his laughter and joy at finally being set free. I know Kelly was with him at that exact moment. Her spirit too had been set free. A slight reprieve from my sobbing brought a faint smile to my lips. There were many mysteries in this unseen world I had yet to understand, but my knowingness was gradually being brought to the light of the awareness of our soul's eternal nature. My journey into the belly of grief had just begun. End of part 2.

In loving memory of Albert Summerson and Kelly Sellman Parenteau.

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