Anniversary Grief


Christmas has come and gone, as has New Years day. Life settles back into a known and not unwelcome routine. I wonder if this year the anniversary date will pass me by, without its dark invitation. I wonder, because I do not have a specific date for the anniversary I am writing of. I have a vague memory of time of a month.

Trauma can work that way, for many of us, we disassociate. We no longer use the rational mind to mark time, and other details of an event. Instead of an experience being processed and metabolized by the psyche, we choose to not think about it. All of our experience disappears, as it heads underground. Unfelt, unprocessed, feelings go straight from the emotional self, into the body consciousness, where they stay until triggered. We are left with the protection of a dreamlike memory, less devastating because it does not stand in sharp relief, its details exposed by the magnifying glass of our awareness. Vague and dreamlike yes, but not a pleasant dream, more like the unremembered nightmare that haunts your day. In fact all of us are haunted by any traumatic event that shaped our self sense and has gone unresolved.

Life is about wholeness, and if there is something in the way of our growth and development, that something will be triggered time and again. Not as a punishment, but as an opportunity to open, feel, process and heal. So we are triggered sometimes by people, sometimes by dreams and sometimes by the anniversary of our wounding.

For me, there comes a morning every January, around the middle of the month, when I wake up in despair, in an emotional place that is so dark and vast that it seems to fill my interior. I wake up in the midst of it, already defined by the emptiness and the belief that there is no way out. I get up and get my coffee and head for my journal. The invitation has arrived, and the deepest part of me has already accepted it. Once again it is time to process one of my most life changing events. Now is the time when I use all of the skills I have learned throughout the years. I lean into the experience. Trusting that healing wants to happen, trusting that love would like to transcend this space, but can only do so if I am willing to feel my way through this experience. So I begin…

I begin with a haiku, one of my favorite forms of poetry, I use the old high school model of five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables, using nature as a metaphor. This year’s offering…

Leeching fatigue,
Too little sleep, endless night.
Edge, wind carved rocks.

And,

Truth telling, running
Clear water, carves true path.
Solid stone story.

I call on my strength; I use my creativity to express my experience of the darkness that surrounds me. As I do this, I free up my voice, I have access to my rational mind and I allow this part of me to tell the story of my experience. Telling the story frees the feelings, and pulls to the surface fractured beliefs that are stored deep within my being.

I open my journal, and begin to write about a mid January morning over forty years ago. I had turned fourteen that previous fall. It is 7 AM, winter dark in our living room, so I cannot see my mother clearly. My sister Karen and I are both bundled up for the cold mile walk to school. We stand books in arms, listening to my mother tell us she is moving out. She says she has to do what is right for her. My sister and I nod our agreement, parroting back to her all she is saying to us. Of course mom can’t survive here with us, and she needs to do what is right for her. We leave for school and do not discuss any of this. Our silent walk is filled with all of our unasked questions. What will happen to us? Does she still love us? Where is she going? Are we coming too? When will this happen? We are numb with cold and shock. I walk remembering my father talking to me and my two sisters right before Christmas. He says, “Now your mother is deciding whether or not she can stay with us. So you must be very good, so she will decide to stay.”

I think about my father’s talk and I know I wasn’t good enough. I am filled to overwhelming with fear and shame. So, I tell no friends. I tell no one at school. I make a choice… I just won’t think about it… I don’t think about it…I don’t think about it. I disassociate. I no longer think or feel anything about what is happening around my mother leaving. I can’t tell you to this day, if she left that same day or a week later. But one day, not long after the morning talk, I came home from school and she has moved out. I can feel not only the emptiness of the furniture being gone, but the emptiness of this home without my mother. There is no note. I don’t know where she is, but she has taken my younger sister with her. I go to the kitchen and get a bowl of cereal and sit down to watch Dark Shadows. I never asked any questions.

As an adult, when I wake up with the despair of abandonment curled around me, I ask all of the questions that my traumatized fourteen year old self could not ask. Why, where, how could you? I weep and wail and I dance my pain. I write poetry and I paint. I go deep into meditation and I find my tender baby woman self and I hold and cradle her and claim her as my own. I take the bodhisattva vow that I will not move forward until she and all of my beloved younger selves come with me. I love her, I love me, and I love us through the pain of not being loved by my mother. I open my heart and feel my worth from the core of my being, all of the things that I have spent years learning, all of the things that are right about me. I share all of this and more with the parts of me that need it the most. I scoop myself up and make a deeper commitment to my own mothering inside and out.

Over the years I experience a version of this every mid January. Because I am no longer afraid of my history and of the work to be done, the feelings come stronger and deeper. Each year I heal to a deeper level. At one time, all of January would be filled with the dread of the memories coming and the despair of their arrival. I now have an invitation to a dark day or two which I graciously accept. I go to the dark place and I bring the light, I gift my younger selves with everything I have learned. Together we grow more whole. I no longer blame myself for my mother’s deep wounds, nor do I see myself as worthless or unlovable. I am one of the many people who have abandonment as my sacred wounding. The wounding that calls me to my deepest strength so I can heal.

January has passed and this year’s anniversary grief has passed with it. I gather my joy, strength, vulnerability and peace. With these qualities intact I look out the window at the falling snow and think of Rumi’s poem The Guest House. It is not only a poem; it is a set of directions to navigate the deepest initiations we have in life. I hope it leads you as well as it has led me.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks