Mindful Grieving
From Dancing From Circles

Dancing in My Mother’s Slippers

Introduction

Don’t you people realize Mother has died? I wanted to shout. This is not an ordinary day!

I drove through downtown Ashland the morning after Mother died. A crowd of people stood waiting to cross the street at the corner of Oak and Main. I saw them in their tourist clothes, office clothes, work-out clothes. Nobody in mourning clothes. They were laughing, talking, living life. It was all wrong.

It wasn’t a new kind of day for them. If they’d known of our loss, they would have expressed their condolences, and gone on across the street to the bank.

We buried Mother. Days passed. Friends and family phoned and wrote and sat with us and prayed with us during Shiva, the first week of the year-long formal Jewish mourning period. People were kind. I thought their presence would be healing. I expected things to be easier by the end of the week. It wasn’t so. By the last day of Shiva, I was moving from numbness into active grief.

I talked with my friend Justin shortly after Mother died. “When my own mother died,” he told me, “I felt as if a mighty oak had been wrenched from my heart.”

The hole she left was that big. This wrenching feeling . . . I recognized it. I felt it almost from the beginning. There was the gentle passing, and then the ache began, the ache of this gaping wound. Every thought, every sight, every memory brought me back to it.

I returned to my demanding job as the executive director of our local community dispute resolution center, and I functioned. But I crept always along the edge of sadness. A particular comfort in those early times was a letter I received from my dear friend Lu who had lost her mother the year before. That she understood was a thin, strong ray of light through the pain, and I read her letter again and again.

I yearned for a book that could show me how to do this thing: to live in a world where there was no Mother to laugh with me, talk with me, advise me—hug me. Therese Rando’s book, How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies, was a great help. I appreciated the way she explained things. She wrote about anticipatory grief, the grief I felt even before Mother died. She normalized my experiences after the death, helped me understand my mood swings, helped me know I wasn’t crazy. But she didn’t show me enough of her own experience. I wanted to know more about what it was like for her. I wanted her to show me how I could do it myself.

My relationship with Mother was, is, extraordinary. We were blessed to really know each other as adults, had a chance to grow beyond the mother-daughter complications. We learned to relax our roles, change them for new ones. We became dear friends.

And what do you do, how do you grieve the loss of a mother who is also your best friend, mentor, role model, spiritual sister? How do you grieve your partner in playfulness, supporter of girlish and womanly explorations? Where do you go for solace when your comforter dies? Inside, into the depths of Spirit. Outside, to your family, to your community. Farther out, into the Vastness. Some of this I knew before Mother’s death, and some of it I learned in grieving and healing.

At some point I realized that grief could transform me, transform itself, but that it wouldn’t really end. There were times when slogging through the mire of confusing thoughts and feelings was all I did. The Dance of Life continued. The balance shifted.

After Mother died, I was absolutely clear about what is important. Then I gradually began to worry about the little things again—the long grocery lines, the apparent slight delivered by a co-worker. Healing went underground, continued on a subliminal level. It was no longer daily in the center of my attention.

Grief had made itself a presence in my life, and I rode it like the bow wave of a speedboat. It drew me along, then I’d move off center and it would toss me into the air, all askew until I’d settle back into the flow.

The journey continues. Occasional dramatic interludes transform the hours, the weeks, of moving through. I look back on the last six years and see the “insurmountable” challenges which my family and I have somehow survived, and I know now that life goes on. We go on. A new kind of wholeness emerges, a whole with a gap in the center, like a bagel, like a doughnut. Life is delectable again. Usually.

I am finding my balance, and I move through my days with a broadening view. I move slowly, reintegrate myself into the world around me. Grief remains. Life will not be held back. Grief and Life entwine like partners dancing—undulating, grounded, steady. Exuberant. Serious. Patient. The dancers move through soft sand, sinking, sinking; glide on glare ice; sail through the air in a joyous leap of faith. There is something to dance about. Yes.

Healing emerges. Grief dashes to the fore—a slip of paper tucked in a drawer, a poem in Mother’s hand, a favorite recipe, a special song. Tears flow. The center is missing, but the memories are sweet.

And insights emerge, signs of a deepening awareness, signs of the spiritual journey that began years ago and continues still. My personal spirituality, my life-long practice, has given me the strength to go on. It is the vessel that holds the grief.

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I decided to write the book I’d yearned to read. Dancing in My Mother’s Slippers is my own story, based on journals I wrote from the time Mother was diagnosed through the five years following her death. This is not a traditional self-help book. It provides no lists or sets of instructions about how to heal yourself.

Perhaps you will resonate with what I have written. Perhaps you will see yourself in these pages. You may realize you’re not alone.

In Dancing in My Mother’s Slippers, you will share the joys, the challenges, the healing insights which brought me peace and sustained me along my way. Community offers sustenance. Faith offers solace. Being present offers peace. I pray that as you read this book, you will, even in some small way, be comforted.

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A Daily Meditation

Source of Life,
grant me grace and dignity to live this day.

Give me patience to notice a fleeting smile,
a moment of tenderness.

Help me face today’s challenges
with wisdom and with courage,
courage to take a stand when I must,
and to surrender when I have done all I can.

Forgive me the mistakes I make today,
and help me to forgive myself.

Remind me to cherish a sunlit patch of grass,
birdsong, a blossom in the yard.

Help me recognize the changes in my body,
and the changes in those I love,
as a part of life.

And with all of that, Eternal One,
help me to rest quietly in Your love
and to find peace in every breath.

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Sailing into the Sunset

Mother was buried in Jacksonville Cemetery, three feet from a sapling spruce. It was pouring down rain, a suitable day for an Oregon funeral. We huddled together, everyone trying to hunch up under somebody’s umbrella to keep the prayer sheets dry. Had to be careful not to slip in the red-orange clay in my high-heeled dress-up shoes. The rabbi said it rained because Mother dearly loved to be near water—at the beach, by a stream, even a creek.

I was dismayed to see water rising in the grave. My brother Gerry had built Mom an aron, a traditional plain pine box. As the men lowered the casket into the grave it tilted, and I realized it was afloat.

I whispered to my brother, “Look, Ger, you made Mama a boat.”

He turned to Dad. “Look, Pop. It’s a boat.”

Mother and Dad had spoken, over all the years, of sailing into the sunset together at their ending time. It was Mama’s magic: she brought the rain, and she sailed across, and Dad will, too, when his time comes.

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November 18  — Ashland, A Year Earlier

“If we each wrapped our troubles in a bundle,” Mother told me, “and we each put our bundles in a pile, when it came time to choose, we’d always choose our own. You never know what someone else’s life is like.” Grandma used to say that.

Dad started hormone treatments for prostate cancer yesterday. And Mom’s going to a gastroenterologist next Monday to see why she has blood in her stool. God willing, it will be something simple.

Mom saw the concerned look on my face as I was leaving last night. She gave me a big hug and said, “This, too, shall pass.”

Outside my window, gray clouds roll back, and underneath, an eggshell blue sky. New day coming.

November 23

Thanksgiving morning and we have a lot to be thankful for, in spite of many challenges. Last evening, Uncle Mac passed on. I’m going to Los Angeles with the family to be with Auntie Mim and the cousins.

December 2

Ger and Dad and I went with Mom for her colonoscopy. The doctor talked to us afterwards in the green-tiled treatment room while the odor of disinfectant wafted at the edges of our senses.

“I cauterized two polyps,” he said, “but there’s a third one, very large, and it’s partially obstructing your bowel. The likelihood is that it’s malignant. It’s got to go, or it will close the bowel up all the way.”

“How soon does it have to be done?” Mother asked.

“Sooner the better. I’ll have my nurse schedule the surgery today. I’m sorry.”

Mom’s eyes held his. “Thank you.”

Mother wasn’t surprised by the diagnosis. She’d suspected polyps. She’d had blood stains in her clothes that wouldn’t wash out, and somebody told her that’s a sign. But she thought the doctor would take care of them today. I have the impression she’s known about this for months and has been putting it off. I can’t blame her. It’s natural to hope there isn’t really a problem.

Mother’s calm on the outside, but she’s worried about the general anesthetic. She’s known people who have developed dementia after major surgery.

Ger thinks we’re entering a new phase, the Losing Parents phase. I remember thinking in Los Angeles that we’d all been living in a delicate and blessed balance, and that Uncle Mac’s death maybe tipped the scale.

Sunday, December 10

I heard Mom’s voice in the night on Wednesday, strong and clear and comforting. Just “Fayegail,” like she was waking me up.

I went over to visit her and Dad the next day, and I told her about it. She said she wasn’t thinking about me then.

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Lance and I hung out with Mom and Dad yesterday. Talked about the dance we’ll have for Dad’s hundredth birthday party—seventeen years from now. He says he’ll dance with me right after Mom. There they both sit, with cancer in their bodies, calm, lively, joking, full of life. It’s hard to think of them as ill, even with Mom running to the toilet every twenty minutes. Maybe that’s the whole point: They are incredibly healthy and whole, in spite of what’s going on in their bodies.

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Circles

Listen to Fayegail read excerpts from Circles

Shiva

My Comforter

Show me how to sit with loss
when I am yearning for her hug or loving touch.

Help me to believe she’ll never make the bed
or brush her hair or cook our breakfast anymore.
No lighting candles for Shabbat, no simcha.

True, the evidence is there: black clothes and crowded living room
where people share their fondest memories. I cannot speak.
Their kindness overwhelms me. I withdraw.
The house is empty. You alone can comfort me.

Teach me to sit still and hold this pain.
“Sit still,” the elders say. But all I want to do is pace,
cry out, retreat, or maybe disappear.

Show me how to find her in this deepest Void.
“Sit quietly,” You say to me,

“and I will comfort you.”

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Terminal Diagnosis

Holy One

As we sit shattered
help us find a way to take another step.

As we mouthe the biggest question, Why?
help us take our place among the many
who have walked this way before.

It is we who ask this question:
Sister, brother, daughter, wife.
There is no answer, this we know.
There is no answer, yet we search the Internet

search our souls search for simple fixes
complicated formulas life-destroying protocols.
Isn’t this the one false diagnosis? Surely a mistake?

And finally we sit, shattered.
Calm us in this frantic time of disbelief

Holy Mysterious One.

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Bliss 

Source Within

Entice me with simplicity.
With You the worry slips aside

And in its place, a sweet serenity,
A roiling avalanche of Light,
A depth of Silence unbeknownst to me, ’til now.

All the days are filled with complications—
Things to solve and meds to try,
Broken hearts and broken dreams,
Distractions, all, from time with You, my Soul.

Clear away the clutter, Loving One.
When I but shift the focus from my thoughts
To You, all slides away, and I am left with

Sweet surrender into Bliss.
Away from time You carry me,

Dear Source Within.

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Copyright © 2006 Fayegail Mandell Bisaccia. All Rights Reserved. Design by LightWerx Media.
Sunset photo © 2006 Benjamin Fisher. Portraits by Shianna Walker.
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