Permission to Be Human

I went for a walk with another bereaved mom over the summer. I don’t know her well – our husbands know one another professionally. I do not recall exactly how we found out their eldest son, a young adult, was killed, but it is the grief connection – that gritty, real-life element we have in common – which eventually led to our meeting a couple of years ago. And then this walk together on a Saturday morning.

As with any new acquaintance and those first few encounters between you, you are aware of being on uncertain ground as you ask questions, share stories. The fact that we have both lost children, we like to exercise, we are both reasonably active and engaged people — those give us a bond, and yet: are we otherwise similar enough (or open enough) that we want – or need? – to be closer friends? What is it that she needs from me, from other humans, especially right now? What is it that I need?

And why do you always feel, somewhere deep down inside, like that little 9 (or maybe 13…15…18) year old that was you – brand new to a class, a school, a neighborhood, a situation – and trying to figure out the ropes? 

Middle School Emily

The walking part went well, I think. As we finished our loop and got back to the starting point, we were talking about a funeral she feels she cannot attend (just too much), and all the books we have been given and/or read since our child died. She talked about asking her husband and son (“surviving son?” “Remaining child?” “Living son?”) to read some of them and do book reports for each other, their pile of books is so big. I started telling her about the ones I’ve read recently which impacted me most, like “Cancer is Funny” (which I wrote about here) — not a “grief book” per se, and written by a young, passionate pastor who is living with a terminal cancer diagnosis. I continued to share with her, saying something along these lines: “I needed to read books that aren’t all fluffy, full of religious words/terminology that don’t, ultimately, resonate for me. I want reality; I appreciate room for anger, for sarcasm even, for a loss of faith.” I told her I listened to a podcast recently – hosted by several young ministers – and the subject was theodicy [does God cause evil], and at some point one of them asked another “So, effectively, there are times when you think God is a [jerk]?” I said that, in my own near-loss of faith, I needed space to know I was not alone in asking, that there was room for these blunt, hard questions; I appreciated the honesty I found in those pages.

And…maybe I am imagining it, but it seemed like I saw her face close and the shutters draw, and she left quite hurriedly after that.

Uh oh.

My anxiety kicked in. No no no. I would never want to say something unhelpful to someone else, especially another grieving parent.

I drank some water.

I paced around.

I walked the cat in the backyard.

I looked at my phone for distraction. Oh! Another grieving mom friend (GMF?) had sent me – while I was walking with this other woman – a text message, sharing how her daughter, away at a camp, was visited by a beautiful luna moth yesterday, on her 22nd birthday. The daughter and her brother – (who died at 22, so that was super-impactful for her yesterday) – loved the camp, and it was there they had seen their first luna moth as young children. She has one tattooed on her arm, in his memory. I text her back and we both agree: no coincidences. How beautiful. I am lifted; we kind of live for those “sightings.”

Seconds later I’m back to worrying. My brain wouldn’t let go of that morning’s episode, what felt like failure. I have come so far, at 56, in my self-confidence, in just being me…but the thought that I might have said something unhelpful just bugged me (or: that she would think I was too weird/not like me…certainly that was in there, too, TBH).

I decided following up would not hurt. I sent a note to thank her for sharing and listening, to share the luna moth story; I lightly apologized for “getting up on my book soapbox.”

No reply.

I made some lunch and sat down – thoughtful, mostly trying to shake it off – next to the “Mark Memorial” in front of our fireplace. I tried to give myself an Adult Talking-To: I did share too much for a second meeting with someone I really don’t know. I need to recognize that what works for me is not always going to be what others need or want (and I will admit there is the other side of me thinking “but I’m so helpful! So right!”).

“So,” I began to ponder/pray, “What is it that I have needed……”

And sometimes I find the answer comes before the question is even asked. 

The question I asked, to which I already had the answer: What do I need? What have I needed? Why have I taken my particular path? Why do I pursue the speakers and authors who are scarred, who have known suffering and loss (i.e., reality); people who have faith, but refuse to box God up as Santa Claus. Why do I prefer writers who may seem almost heretical in their blunt honesty, the constant banging of the it’s-all-grace-drum, and/or their challenges to what passes for tradition? Why am I so attracted to authors who have stood my beliefs, my theology on its head and shaken it so hard that all its pockets are empty? (and then filled those pockets with love….)

I needed permission to feel.
To think, ask questions. To get mad.
To not be quiet and stuff it all down.

I needed permission to be exactly who and what and how I am right now,
to know that was not only OK,
but a preferred state of relationship;
in fact: it is, paradoxically and much to my surprise, where change begins.

I am not talking about staying stuck in grief and endless sadness. I am not talking about constant navel-gazing, “being me at the expense of others,” bashing one another over the head with our hard realities in the midst of a chat by the avocados at SuperFresh. There is almost always a place for laughter/humor; there are times for light-hearted talk. But if you are my peer (facing a lot of mid-life stuff, like @&$*#! hot flashes and parents nearing life’s end), if we are having lunch, taking a long walk, sharing a hotel room at a conference or retreat — let’s Be Real Humans. Please. For too long I thought my job was to be perfect and have it all together, have all the answers. But instead I’ve found in that vulnerable sharing of truths we often hide (our failings, our fears), something happens. The unsolvable burden will probably still be there but lightened a bit, somehow, just because there are now more feet next to yours, on the ground beneath it. The painful situation plaguing your nights and days, seen through another’s eyes, might catch a little glimmer of faint light along one edge. A person trapped in anger, self-pity and resentment might be caught by the joy of a person who, it turns out, has suffered great loss – and begin to ask questions. Maybe this has happened for you all along, within rich and valuable, real-life, give-and-take friendships. Oh, please recognize that treasure you hold.

AND, yeah. Yep: I think diving in too deeply, oversharing with someone I barely know, was not the smartest choice. For either of us. I can learn to ask more questions first – where are you now? What’s helping? What’s not?

She never wrote back. She has permission to be human, too.