How touching memories discovered during the grief of losing a parent become thoughtful insights for healing.
Sharing the language of art with my mom.
“Like sparkling diamonds.” That was how I replied to mom, who was looking through a gallery on my website when she saw “Walking on Broken Glass.” She was in the last days of her life. In a couple of days, she’d lose the ability to talk with us in preparation for her transition. Fairly soon, we’d be dealing with the grief of losing our remaining parent.
“Walking on Broken Glass” caught mom’s eye for the sparkling colors. From a symbolic perspective, glass undergoes many transformations. At first, solids are melted into a liquid form, cooled to return to a solid structure, and eventually broken down: mimicking the cycles in life.
What are the benefits of smiling and laughing despite difficulties?
I’d returned from an eye exam to visit with mom. “Everything checked out fine.” As a nurse, she recalled my bouts of retinal detachments. Even though there’s not been a problem in many years, I still stress a bit each time I go for my annual appointment. I certainly didn’t want her stressing about that anymore.
I wanted to make her smile by showing her a shot I had created for my eye doctor. In the past few days, I’d realized that she responded to anything funny. A few days prior, I took a photo in her room as she lay in bed watching me. When I held up my phone with the picture, a big grin lit up her face.
Smiling is an instant mood booster and turns your thoughts toward the positive. We both needed that.
An impromptu photo I created while sitting with mom while she was in a living assisted home. I could see her wondering what I was doing, and when I finished and showed her, the instant grin and chuckle made me break out in a smile too.
So I had even more incentive after that smile to find the photo called “Eye Exam.” I pulled up my website on my phone, found the photo in my “Everyday Objects” gallery, and held the phone up for her to see.
While in an abandoned building in Detroit, I saw these metal “E” letters. They weren’t letters but rather some sort of bracket. A funny thought about eye exam charts caused me to gather and arrange them. “Eye Exam” is a fun close-up in the “Everyday Objects” gallery. Couldn’t you see it hanging in an eye doctor’s lobby?
She did smile. Taking my phone in her hand, she read the caption. And then she started to scroll, looking, reading, commenting as she made her way, top to bottom of the page. Her finger traced the words, examining every photo and caption. I teased her that, other than myself, she was probably the only one that had done that.
“Mom, you don’t have to read the whole thing,” I said.
She was a slower reader than her old self, who could consume a book in a matter of a day or two, depending on how good the story was. Based on her comments, I could tell she absorbed the words and my thoughts on each piece. As an artist, I would admit it is rare to experience someone else consuming your art. That was an intimate experience.
“I find it interesting,” was her reply. Then she came to the “Walking in Broken Glass” piece and took a long breath, saying, “wow, the colors.”
I captured this photo a few weeks before at a workshop I attended in Detroit with Art Wolfe. Due to mom’s declining health, I almost came close to not going on this trip.
At the last minute, with encouragement from those close to the situation, I decided a short break would refuel me. Mom was stable at that point. It might be the break I needed to help me go the distance, whatever the timeframe. But with all she’d been through, it was painfully clear that the grief of losing a parent was hovering closer.
Here’s the building where we discovered broken window glass. I left the pieces just as they were, undisturbed. I thought they already had a beautiful Wabi-Sabi appearance. Besides, I may do dumb things now and again, but touching broken glass is just asking for trouble.
We were in an abandoned manufacturing plant, and all the windows lay shattered. Then the sun came out behind some clouds and started illuminating the broken pieces on the floor. I knew I had to work fast because as quickly as the clouds part, they can converge and pull the curtain shut. Then the magic would be gone.
I was setting up my tripod, exhausted and excited. I didn’t realize that one tripod leg was loose. In a blink of an eye, the leg contracted, and in the imbalance, the tripod tipped. The camera lens fell right into the glass. Thank goodness for the lens hood, which protected the glass on the front of my lens. I owe that piece of plastic a big thank you. But I also owe an apology to those around me for the jolting expletive that came out of nowhere.
I decided to name this “Walking on Broken Glass.” Yes, I like Annie Lennox and the Eurythmics, but this scene reminds me of an early childhood memory.
The lyrics to “Walking on Broken Glass” by the Eurythmics references a moment in life that anyone in their right mind would know to be extremely painful. And certainly, the grief of losing a parent is a heart-aching event. But this loss is inevitable. And universal. The loss makes us human.
How memories during grieving help healing.
I have this toddler myopic vision of dad on my left, holding that hand, my brother on the right, holding that hand. We were barefoot walking on a sand beach at a lake in Minnesota. I was of the age where thoughts form, but the ability to communicate them is like trying to wave for help in thick fog. By the time I could process that my little foot was about to go down on a piece of broken glass, I was still trying to figure out how to let a sound out.
That’s probably the same trip, or one in that general timeframe, where my mom says she took her eyes off me for a split second. The next thing she knew, I was deep under a thick bush. She got me out, appalled. Head to toe, I was crawling with ticks. She had a long afternoon picking each one from under my skin. Picture a mom with tweezers or worse, a lit match, trying to extract ticks while a little toddler squirms and fidgets.
I do not remember the tick experience, and I am grateful. But I can close my eyes and vaguely see an even earlier memory.
The visual is fuzzy, but I am in a playpen. The mood is sad and gray. So quiet. I would guess I’d be a little over a year old. That depressed feeling was what a small child would feel when the entire country mourned the shooting of a President.
Mom told this story to me on several occasions. I pictured the scene as she said, “We all sat in shock, watching the news. That’s all that was on every channel for days.” Our parents finally silenced the TV because it was all too much.
Those were the days when it didn’t matter if the President was from a different political party from yours. It didn’t matter that you might not have voted for him. It was a time when people were appalled at violence. They mourned for the person and the loved ones left behind with their gaping wound. But as she would say, they were decent back then.
After all the difficulties mom faced, she taught us that smiling and laughing were the most important parts of the journey. So, here we enjoyed time together on my birthday. Of course, I am smiling outwardly, but I know this will be our last birthday together. Holidays are one of those times when the grief of losing a parent hits hard. Photo by Bill Marson.
Mom passed this week after dealing with trauma for three months, and the feelings are moving through me–sadness, disbelief, guilt, and despair. And I know that those feelings are all normal. The memories I am recalling are as well. Each recollection helps me process and be grateful for how many joyful moments there were to share. As I remember these snapshots in time, I can look beyond today’s pain. Mom made it to 92 years of living independently. I’m proud of how strong she was through this section of her days. But the truth is, I’m proud of all her days.
Physical signs of grief.
I’ve been through the grief of losing a parent before. However, knowing doesn’t bypass the process. There’s emotional pain in addition to the pain that manifests in the physical body. My joint pains surge on some days without a seeming cause. Headaches that I thought I’d figured out how to manage are back. Some nights I fall asleep but wake at 4:00 a.m. and can’t fall back asleep. Other nights I lay forever without being able to fall asleep. Yet I am so drained. While our emotional body tries to make sense of life without this important person, our body shares some of the same systems that manage physical and emotional sensations.
Knowing this, I am permitting myself to rest and not judge harshly. While this may go on for six months or longer, I have support in my life. I’m thankful for that. We were able to prepare for the loss a little at a time.
I also recognize that grieving might amplify my anger, so I’m watchful for emotions building up. For instance, I belonged to a group online that was subscription-based. I didn’t realize I’d enabled automatic renewal for the annual fee. I hadn’t been watching emails closely, and although the group had sent out reminders, I did not notice them. I wanted to snap at someone when honestly, the mistake was my own. So I waited a bit before I sent an email requesting a refund. I worded it carefully so as not to throw blame. What harm that could have done.
Space is essential between thoughts and actions: significant financial decisions or major changes do not make sense for the first year following a death. How easy it is to feel like a move or a purchase of something new will change the feelings. But that will only be a temporary salve. And if done in haste, there is a good chance that the decision will carry regret later. I can’t tell you how many “mistakes” I’ve uncovered already, and that was just during the stress of mom’s health issues. Now that the loss is sinking in, I will need to be patient and take things slower.
How grieving is important for healing.
That feeling I had as a child, wanting to communicate and not finding my voice, best describes how I’ve felt. I’m held in loving care, and I know that. But there’s so much I’d like to communicate, yet words fail me. I know it will take time to balance the grief of losing a parent. Processing all the reactions is essential. Grieving offers us the chance to understand the value and meaning of life. I may be an adult, but the loss of a parent means one of the very first and most important connections in my life has changed.
As I write this, it is our parents’ anniversary. Yesterday morning, I was in the backyard. Motion caught my eye, and I watched two white egrets flying side by side, which is not that common a sight in Phoenix. Our parents had to be patient for twenty years to be together again. So I romanticized that this fly-by was letting me know they were together. And dad taught mom the joy of flying.
The young couple is embarking on a life together. The look on mom’s face is so joyful. And now they are reunited. Photo credit, Portrait Photographer from Stearn & Sons Photographers, 72 Bridge Street, Cambridge, England.
Sharing feelings and grieving together.
As I called family and friends with the news, I realized how mom touched these people and how she had helped many of them. Each call felt like an ocean wave rushing to fill a hole dug on the beach. But the water disappeared after a few seconds. Then another wave followed, filling up that hole again. Each phone call offered increments of comfort, but I was still left with a hole once we hung up.
A few weeks ago, I received a newsletter that included this article on grief.
Interesting timing. The core idea is that the person that passes is now free of their emotional armor. Therefore, they can love us in a new, unconventional way. That tug in our hearts encourages us also to shed our armor. Then we can have a new heart-to-heart relationship with them. To do that, we must work through the pain of grief.
And the most important relationships take time and effort. Maybe that’s why grieving never leaves us; it just softens over the years. So we continue to work on these crucial relationships to make them stronger.
Although she can’t physically offer comfort now, she left love behind for us to find.
Know that you are part of that love.
How have you dealt with the loss of someone important in your life?
Ann Newman is a photographer, writer, and creator of Annstracts who brings readers inspiration through her abstract photos. As a former, professionally-trained salesperson, Ann understands that people want to solve problems or accelerate growth for a better future. Exploring the little moments in life with gratitudes gives her art a positive spin. You might find Ann near her home in Phoenix, bent down looking at the tiniest details of a bug, patting any nearby dog, or asking “why” an awful lot.