She sat there, alone, in the corner, until she cried it all out. Nobody had told her how to grieve. All she knew were two things – the rocking chair was where you sat to be soothed by your parents, and the corner was where you stood to reflect upon your sins. So she put the two ideas together. Her parents were no longer here to soothe her by rocking her back to sleep after a nightmare or to read her picture book filled with bunnies or bears.
The corner was where you stood facing inward, away from other people, a cheap form of solitary confinement. Bereft of company, you were stuck with your own thoughts. It was a foretaste of hell for those who feel guilty, felt wrong, felt broken. Never in her life had she voluntarily put herself there. This time was different. Everything was different now.
They died, both of them, not quite together, but a bit like dominoes anyway. People couldn’t quite grasp it, and assumed there’d been an accident. It wasn’t sudden. The signs were there all along. It was tragic only so much as it was preventable. It was sad that they’d squandered their lives, dissolved into nothingness, and for so long.
So now, not knowing what else to do, she sat, in the corner, in the chair. No need to face into the corner – nobody was there. Not just in the room, but the whole house. It was so quiet it was deafening. So here she sat, in the space of consoling isolation, to visit with the ghosts of her parents. They’d never left. Sure, their bodies were gone, buried in the cemetery on the other side of the city. Cemeteries and city dumps were always near each other, always in the low-rent part of town. The industrial waste recycling center was in the same block along the section 8 houses. It wasn’t an accident.
She noted she was getting distracted. Grief was like this, this veering away, then closer, like a moth to the flame at times. Dangerous to get too close. So usually we stay away. It hurts too much to look at it directly.
But after a while the phantom pains don’t fade. The anxiety stays long enough to pay rent. They both don’t have nameable causes, so when she finally notices her spirit is off-balance, she knows it is time to stop and face it.
How did she learn this, this inner healing? They certainly didn’t teach her. Death wasn’t something you talked about, just like politics or religion. It wasn’t nice to talk about in polite company. They acted like it was something that happened other people, less fortunate people, people who deserved it. They weren’t even in the same state when their own parents died. They skipped the funerals and cashed the inheritance checks. They wore black for about a month and told friends of their loss, but otherwise didn’t grieve. Maybe that is what killed them so young. If grief doesn’t get out by tears or wailing, it gets bottled up inside and starts eating you up from the inside out.
She was determined not to join them. So here she sat, in the corner, healing herself from the inside out.



I had a boyfriend who was 20 when was 17. His birthday was coming up and he wanted to celebrate it with his parents at his house and he wanted me to come. However, this involved a trip across the country in a plane. We flew from Chattanooga to Seattle, and then drove to some little town about two hours away. I was stuck at his house, in his town, with his parents. I had no way out. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it became really obvious very soon that I was in trouble.

Having never made any moves on me before then, he attempted to have sex with me that very first night. I resisted and eventually managed to survive the week still a virgin. I broke up with him immediately upon returning home and didn’t speak with him for many years afterwards. He was deeply confused as to what had gone wrong. Even after I explained it to him he didn’t really understand.

I suspected something was wrong from the very beginning of the stay with his parents, when I was greeted by his parents at their house and his father was wearing only an undershirt and tight shorts. I was clued in to more when I learned that my boyfriend’s “rebel” earring wasn’t rebellious at all – his dad had one, and his brother had one. I also figured out that something was wrong when his parents matter-of-factly put my luggage and his luggage in the same room.

The alarm bells kept going off – there was a lot of smoke, but I didn’t have an escape plan. Worse, I’d been taught to ignore these alarm bells by the very people who should have taught me better.

What were the alarm bells? My parents would have never greeted a guest wearing their underwear. They would never even be seen in front of anyone, even family, like that unless they were sick. They certainly wouldn’t have put a non-married couple in the same room together, and much less if one person was a teenager.

For his parents to treat me like that was a warning that I was not in a “normal” house – and I certainly wasn’t safe. He proceeded to try to “pick my locks” as the Pink Floyd song goes every night that week, and I was terrified.

How could I leave? I had no car. I had no spare money. He had the tickets – he’d bought them.

Perhaps I could have called home and gotten my parents to wire me money for a new plane ticket – to leave right away. Perhaps I could have gotten a taxi and just left.

I didn’t. I felt trapped, and I had no frame of reference for this kind of behavior. I had no way of knowing how to act.

But in a way I did. My brother abused me in many ways throughout my childhood, and my parents did nothing. He beat me and stole from me and when I told them they didn’t make it better. They didn’t punish him at all. He eventually became a full-blown narcissistic psychopath, and they didn’t nip this in the bud. He learned early on that he could get away with manipulating people any way he wanted. He learned early on that he could treat people like things and get away with it. Since my parents didn’t defend me, I learned to be passive. This was how I was supposed to be treated, apparently.

My trips to the dentist as a child also taught me passivity. He didn’t use anesthesia because he thought the needle would scare me. I learned that pain was to be endured, especially pain at the hands of an authority figure. My parents were paying for it, so this must be normal. Suck it up.

While I’m angry at myself for not standing up and defending myself, I also have to forgive myself. I didn’t know better. I wasn’t taught well. I learned to accept bad behavior quietly until I could find a way to remove myself safely. I’m angry at them for not teaching me how to take care of myself at all. I’m angry at them for their ineptness. But I also need to remember that they, like all parents, are amateurs.

I went to a therapist once who thought I should just hang out in the “angry” place and not forgive or excuse bad behavior, but it isn’t that simple. Emotions aren’t just one or another, but a range of them. I can be angry and forgive at the same time. I can understand and empathize, but also be sad at people’s bad choices.

While I think that boyfriend and my family “should” have known better, I’m putting my value system on them. I’m forgetting that they don’t have to do things my way. I’m forgetting that they have their own ways of doing things, and if I feel that they are wrong – for me – then I must get away from them. They don’t have to stop doing what they are doing – they just have to stop doing them to me. Their actions are their own, and the consequences of their actions are their own.

This all reminds me of how nobody told me how to use the brakes on a bike when they taught me to ride. I got very badly hurt, and it was totally avoidable.

How NOT to do Pastoral Care.

There is a lady I know who took the same Pastoral Care class that I did. She is a nurse and goes to church regularly. She is certified as a minister in her church. She isn’t ordained, per se. I thought that she would know how to handle it when I told her some heavy news.

My mother-in-law is now in the hospital. She passed out and hit her head. Just days earlier she found out that her cancer had spread to her lungs. I know that means she has just a few months left.

I don’t want this lady to pray for her to live longer. That isn’t why I started to tell her what was going on. I thought we were friends, and in a way we are. She tells me heavy stuff and good stuff. She tells me about the important things going on in her life. We celebrate together and mourn together. But it really is that I celebrate and mourn with her, about her issues, and she doesn’t return the favor. It isn’t reciprocal.

One thing that you have to remember about Pastoral Care, about mindfully listening to someone while they are in a bad situation, is that it isn’t about you. You aren’t supposed to talk about your situation, or compare, or outclass. You can’t tell the other person a story of how it is worse for you or someone you know. That kind of “perspective” isn’t helpful and it isn’t kind. It is the exact opposite of what is necessary.

What is necessary is just listening, and I mean really listening fully. Not being distracted, not trying to leave, not looking around at your phone or watch. You can ask the other person how they feel about it, and you can say “Gosh that has to be hard” but that is about all you are allowed to say.

They just need a safe person to talk to – one who can handle this information in a way that is healthy for both people. A good listener is like Houdini once he had prepared. He could warm up his stomach muscles in just such a way and then anybody could punch him in the stomach as hard as they wanted and he’d be fine. He had trained himself how to do this. A good listener does the same. If they aren’t ready for it, a hard story can destroy them, so they have to train to be able to receive it. Taking a pastoral care class is part of this training.

I should have known better when I first started talking to her yesterday. Just after I reminded her that my mother in law has pancreatic cancer (not a pushover kind of cancer), she turned away and made some (unrelated) joke to the instructor of the class we were in. I felt slighted, but I decided to give her another chance.

When she turned back to me, I kept on with the story. I’m a bit torn about what to do because of the history of physical and mental abuse she allowed in her house. It is my father in law’s fault that the abuse happened, but it is her fault that it continued. They were both very immature when they got married. They are both still immature now, and they are in their 70s.

So some of the issue that I’m dealing with is how much are we supposed to get involved in this situation. You reap what you sow, right? But as a Christian, I’m supposed to forgive, right?

I just feel like if I pretend nothing happened, then I’m doing the same thing she did. I’m saying that it was OK. And it isn’t OK. Abuse is never OK, whether you are the one doing it or you are the one allowing it. By allowing it, you are sanctioning it.

So this lady, this minister, this person who has taken the same class I have and should know better, she starts telling me a story. Now, it isn’t a story about her, but it isn’t a helpful story. It isn’t enlightening, and it isn’t useful. It doesn’t tell me a way to deal with this situation. It actually makes me feel worse.

(Trigger warning)
(I didn’t get this warning when I got this story)
(Such is life)
It was a story about a couple that she knew in a nursing home. Both husband and wife were in separate rooms, and it was for a terrible reason. The husband was abusing his wife, sexually, and their children were OK with it. “She’s his wife” they’d say, as if that excuses rape.

(Warning over)

She went on and on with her story and I felt trapped. Finally it stopped and there was some silence. I digested this, still not knowing what to do about the situation I brought up, and feeling worse because of the story she told. Helpless. Raw. Frustrated. Dirty.

I digested this story and knew that my boundaries had been violated. I told her that I can’t handle those kinds of stories, and she apologized. She said she was a nurse and terrible things happen around and to nurses all the time.

She proceeded to tell me some of the horrible things that have happened. It got graphic.

Somehow her apology ended up being even worse than the reason for the apology.

She didn’t see the error of her way – she didn’t get that telling that kind of story to anybody isn’t a great idea. It is especially a bad idea if the person is experiencing a problem.

I can handle it. I’m pretty strong, emotionally. I’ve learned a lot about boundaries. I wonder about anybody else she might “help”, and how they will react.

I now know that I can’t trust her with anything heavy.
She’ll drop it on me.

The purpose of taking a pastoral care class, in fact, the purpose of being a minister, is to learn how to help people. It isn’t to carry someone else’s burdens for them. It is to carry them with them for a little while. When you do that, you make it a bit easier for them to see what they are supposed to do. When you do that, you give them a little breathing room.

You are never supposed to add to their burden.

Playing rich

I talked with my Mom while I was baking today. And of course, I didn’t talk to her in the normal way. She’s been dead for 20 years. But we talked, just the same. You might understand.

I asked her about “real” cooking, instead of basically reheating frozen food. A lot of what we ate came from boxes, and tasted like it. A lot was brown.

I said, if you’d practiced more, then cooking wouldn’t have been such a burden to you. It wouldn’t have been so hard.

She pointed out that they didn’t have much money. My Dad was chronically underpaid as an English teacher. He never got his full professorship. He never got tenure. Every semester it was a challenge to see if he had three classes to teach or none. He had started to teach long-distance. This was in the days before the internet. He couldn’t teach at home with everyone Skyping in. He drove. He drove long distances and late in the day, so that he could teach adult students who were juggling college with a career. They met in high schools after hours. Sometimes he taught in prison. He taught wherever he could – in part because he loved to teach, but also in part because we needed the money.

So we didn’t have much.

But it also wasn’t spent well.

I remember that Mom lived rich. She didn’t get much love from Dad. It was a cold marriage, one of duty. They didn’t have to marry, but they had married fast, without much time to get to know each other. She certainly didn’t know that he was mentally ill and not properly medicated. Not like the medications back then were any good. Mostly they turned you into a zombie, a shell of your former self. No wonder the compliance rate was so low.

My Mom stayed with the marriage out of a sense of obligation, and perhaps out of fear. What was a woman with no training supposed to do on her own? How was she supposed to support herself and two children? So she stayed. It wasn’t bad enough to leave. They didn’t yell at each other. They just didn’t speak either.

So she got what she felt she was owed through material things.

There were expensive perfumes. There were jewels. There were nice clothes. There was even a mink stole.

She didn’t feel loved in a non-tangible way, so she demanded it in a tangible way. This is so sad. It was like she was a prostitute in her own marriage.

So we were shortchanged on actual nutrition because my Mom felt slighted. She didn’t feel nourished, so we didn’t get nourished. I know this wasn’t intentional. I know she didn’t think of it like this. She didn’t see the connection at all.

If she’d worked on the real problem, she wouldn’t have had to supplement with things. If they’d gone to marriage counseling, then there might have been something real there.

And then she reminds me that they did go to marriage counseling. It was through their church. It was with the priest, who had taken a vow of celibacy. This man knew nothing about how to live with another person. He’d never been married. They didn’t get the help they needed. So instead of finding a real counselor, they just left the church.

And just existed, together, in a sad way. For years.

Money doesn’t buy happiness, true. And happiness sometimes is hard work. It is hard to fight for yourself. It is hard to stand up for yourself when you feel beaten down. It is hard, and it is tiring.

The more I dig, the more I uncover. The more I uncover, the more compassion I feel for my parents. The more I understand why they made the choices they did. The more I am determined not to make the same mistakes.

I’m sure I will. Not all, but some. Nobody is perfect. That is impossible. But intentional living and mindfulness are showing me things I never saw before. Perhaps things I never wanted to look at before.

Death guilt – on the relief you feel after a parent dies after a long illness.

There is a lot of guilt that comes when a loved one dies that we have taken care of. If you have been the primary caregiver, you are suddenly relieved of the majority of your duties. You duties don’t end totally – there is most likely an estate to settle – but they change. You aren’t “on duty” constantly.

There is part of where the guilt comes in. If your loved one has been sick a long time and you have been the main (or only) caregiver, you are worn out from that constant work. Sick people take a lot of attention. They are often sick at very inconvenient times. The middle of the night is a common time for things to go south. Everything is harder to deal with when you have just a little sleep. It is even harder to deal with when that has been going on for weeks. Or months. Or years.

Very few people talk about this, but there comes a time when you look forward to your loved one dying, because that means you are free to start living. It sounds cold to say this, so people will say that they want their loved one to “pass on” or “transition” so that they can be free of pain. They want that too, of course. Part of the pain of dealing with a very sick loved one is seeing them suffer and knowing there is little you can do for them other than bring them food and fluff their pillows. Death is a release and a blessing at times.

In reality, death is a release and a blessing for the patient as well as the caregiver. When the patient dies, the caregiver is now free to live. The caregiver no longer has to stay by the bedside of the sick person. She no longer has to sleep on the sofa, hurting her back. She no longer has to call in to work, using up personal leave or vacation time (if she has it). She no longer has to do double duty of taking care of her parent’s home and her own.

There is something to be said for having families live together. The more the nuclear family explodes into satellite units, the more problems are created when a member needs help. Also, why have three households who have to buy three sets of lawn equipment, when you can have one big one that shares? I wonder if this is part of the “commune” idea. Instead of having friends living communally, start at the source and have families live that way. But I digress.

Sometimes the reason children leave the household as soon as they can is because they don’t really like their parents. Just because someone is your parent doesn’t mean that he is a good person. Becoming a parent isn’t the same as being an adult or a mature person. Sometimes “parent” just means someone who has reproduced. The parent is little more than a maladapted child himself.

Our society doesn’t speak about this very much. We laud parents. We think that parents are all knowing and all powerful. They aren’t. Nothing magical happens when they have a child. They don’t suddenly stop being neurotic or needy. In some cases their problems just get deeper and darker. So when such a parent-person gets sick enough to need help, the child is conflicted. They are expected by society to help. They are expected to drop everything and take care of their sick or dying parent. The only problem is that the abuse that the child received is often never revealed. Sometimes even the child is not aware of how mistreated she was. She just knows deep in her gut that she doesn’t want to take on this task. It isn’t because she is selfish.

It is a double bind. The child was taught her whole life to serve the parent. She was taught that she deserved to be treated badly. She was taught that her own needs didn’t matter. So when the parent is terminally ill, the child is expected to drop everything to take care of him. Then she feels conflicted.

It is hard enough to take care of a really sick person. Nurses have training for this. The average person does not. You don’t just wake up with the know-how to be a competent caregiver. When that sick person is your parent it is extra hard. When that parent was abusive it is nearly impossible.

When your parent is very sick, you have to become the parent. You are in charge. There aren’t classes for this. We don’t talk about this in Western society. I’m not sure any society talks about this, but I know this one sure doesn’t. But Western society rarely talks about anything real anyway.

For years, the child is subservient. Even if the child has become an adult and has a family and household of his own, he is expected to defer to his parents. That role never stops unless he establishes boundaries. The only problem is that there isn’t training on this, and there isn’t a lot of social support for it. If his parents die before he has established these boundaries and stood his own ground, he has a lot of ground to make up.

Even if none of this is going on, even if the relationship is healthy and sound, there are conflicting feelings when the parent dies. One of those feelings is relief, but that feeling alone causes guilt. You aren’t supposed to feel relief when your parent dies. You are supposed to be sad. Often you are sad. Sometimes you are angry too, at them having left you. Sometimes you are frustrated about all the mess they left you to have to clean up. But sometimes it is relief, because it is a lot of hard work taking care of a sick parent. Sometimes it is relief because now for once you can live your life your way without being second guessed by your parent.

It is healthy to feel whatever you feel when your parent dies, regardless of what you feel. Your feelings are yours, and they are valuable. If they have died after a long illness where you were the caretaker, your feelings will be even more complex. Don’t ignore those feelings, and don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed. They are natural. It is healthy to feel them and express them. You may not have heard other people talk about the relief they felt because they thought they shouldn’t talk about it – but it doesn’t mean you are alone. Sometimes just sharing this feeling with others who have been in a similar situation is very healing. This is why I’m sharing this with you.

Twenty years gone.

It has been twenty years since my parents have died and I almost forgot. The thing that reminded me was a notice from AAA telling me it is time to renew my membership. I’d gotten it after my parents died because I realized I didn’t have anybody to call if I was stuck somewhere with a broken down car.

They died six weeks apart. Mom died first of lung cancer and then Dad died of a heart attack. Mom’s was an expected death, Dad’s wasn’t. It wasn’t a total surprise – he’d never taken care of himself. But I hadn’t prepared for it like we’d had to do with Mom’s.

I remember the first few years after they had died. Every year when the date for Mom’s death would come up I would dread it. I didn’t have to write it on the calendar to remember it. It would rise up, unwelcome. The memories of my loss would come to visit and stay with me like a crazy relative who overstays her welcome. Then, because my Dad died six weeks later, I’d be in a holding pattern. I’d feel like my life had been put on pause for all that time. Six weeks of feeling my feelings, of holding them and examining them. Six weeks of waiting.

What was I waiting for? It was like I was holding my breath until the day that Dad died would roll around. Somehow that day was the day that the strange double-grieving period was over in my head. It was time to start life again then. I was released.

This pattern went on for years. Sometimes I would meet up with a friend of my Mom’s on her death date. We would console each other over a beer and a burger, or a trip to a craft show. Sometimes I would do something in honor of Mom and Dad. I’d listen to their favorite music, or try a hobby that they liked. They were ways of trying to bring them back to me, if just for a little while. It helped.

But this year I’ve forgotten. This year I’ve found myself in the middle of their death days. This year nearly two weeks have passed since my Mom’s death day and I missed it. I figured that this year would be extra different because it was twenty years.

Every year it has gotten easier. I’ve heard there is a sort of half-life to grief. However long you knew the person, take that time and divide it by two. That length of time is the length of time you will grieve for that person. I’d known them for twenty-five years – so twenty years grieving is way past that time. By that reckoning I should be over it.

You aren’t ever over the death of your parents, or of anyone who meant something to you, who impacted your life. Their loss will always mean something. There is a hole that can’t ever be filled.

The hole does get smaller. It can’t ever completely go away, but it can get less like a gaping wound and more like a scar. It will never be perfect. You’ll always know it is there, but it won’t cripple you like it did.

Maybe this is why I felt the need to make lemon delights this weekend. Maybe in the back of my mind I did remember. This was my favorite dessert that my Mom would make. I’d ask for them for my birthday instead of cake.

A few years ago my mother-in-law tried to make them for me when we were visiting around my birthday. She didn’t have baking powder and used baking soda instead. They weren’t the same, but she got bonus points for trying to console me anyway. Even if she had made them exactly according to the recipe, they wouldn’t have been the same because she isn’t my Mom. Nobody can ever fill that spot. But her trying to soothe me was kind.

But somehow, this week, I got the hankering to make them. I’ve never made them before. I haven’t really cooked before, so I haven’t had flour or eggs or baking powder in the house. I hadn’t thought about buying them because I thought it would be wasteful to have these things here just for this one recipe. But this year I’ve been cooking, and with that, baking.

I talked with my Mom while I made the lemon delights this weekend. People rarely tell you that the relationship continues after the person’s death. They don’t tell you how to do it, how to communicate with them and have a relationship. It turns out that they are still with you, in your heart. You can talk to them, and if you are quiet enough, you can hear them. It is beautiful and sad and special. You can work things out. And that is what we did.

I followed her recipe, that same recipe card that she used, in her funny squiggly handwriting. The card is smeared with stains from dozens of years of use. My husband had gone out on a bike ride so it was just me and the recipe. So I started to talk to my Mom. I told her how sad I was that she had not taught me to cook. I told her how hard it was to be without her, that I wish she could see how well I’m doing now. I wish she could meet Scott. I wish she could read my writing. I wish I wish I wish.

And I heard her. I heard her back, gently, lovingly, sadly. I heard her back in my heart as I mixed and blended and sifted. I heard her tell me that in everything I had ever done I had surprised her. I heard her tell me that she thought that because I was “gifted” that I didn’t need to learn these simple basic things like cooking and housework. I heard her tell me that she was sorry, that she didn’t know. She didn’t know that just because I can grasp things quickly doesn’t mean I don’t need them to be handed to me first. She didn’t know, because she couldn’t know.

And I forgave her. And I move on in my grief. I move on in my loss, the loss of my Mom at a young age. I move on in my loss of all the things I wasn’t taught and didn’t even know I needed to know. I move on, but at the same time I’m moving on I’m moving back, and in, and within. I’m moving around inside this hole that was left when my Mom died.

Maybe she was the one prompted me to make lemon delights this weekend. Maybe she knew that I’d come to in the middle of this time and be sad that I didn’t remember, didn’t memorialize it. Maybe she knew that I would need something to hold on to.

She has given me something in this. This isn’t a blanket or a talisman. This isn’t a token or a fetish. There isn’t something to point to or to work with like worry beads. What she has given me is the knowing, the sure knowing, that she is not gone. She has come back to me in my heart, and in that coming back she has restored a bit of myself to me. She is filling that empty hole that was left when she died. She is filling it with herself.

Getting kids to read.

I know too many people who let their children decide what they are going to read or if they are going to read. This is the same as letting them decide what they are going to eat. No child is going to make good choices. They are going to go for the comic books and the candy. That is why you are their parent. You are there to direct and guide them.

Just like a potter with a lump of clay, the potter shapes it and molds it until it is tall enough and strong enough that it will be useful. It has to be shaped in such a way that it can endure the heat of the kiln and the wear and tear of use.

Children have to be shaped so that they can be strong too. They need to be shaped so that that are good people and helpful and kind. They need to be shaped so that they can survive out in the world and not crack.

So in the same way that you wouldn’t let a child pick out all of his food when he is only going to go for cake and chips, you can’t let him pick out his books when he is only picking out what is essentially junk food for the mind.

Now we all need a little junk food reading every now and then. It is important to let kids have some control over what they select. They need to learn that reading is a pleasure and not a punishment. They need to feel that it is fun and not work. But a solid diet of junk food results in a sick body. A solid diet of junk food reading results in a sick mind.

If you let children have total control that is the same as the potter letting the clay have control. They will be an unformed lump at best. They will be spread all over the place at worst.

Don’t know what to recommend to your child? Go to your local library and ask a librarian. They are there to help. You don’t have to do this on your own, but you do have to do this. The mind you save will be your child’s. The world you will save will be your own.