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Posts tagged ‘grief’

Five Years Later: Remembering “One Mother’s Dream”


The night before my son died, I opened mail, standing in the kitchen. My boy sat at a round table, watching. Soup heated on the stove. I had worked all day, and needed to attend a class later that evening. He had stayed home from high school, sick with the flu. I opened a white envelope, and in it was an advance copy of Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul 2 containing a story I wrote, “One Mother’s Dream.” I said to Justin, “OH! Our story arrived!!!” A grin lit his face as he replied, “Let me see!” I looked at him, then asked, “Would you like me to read it out loud to you?” “Yes,” he said.

I opened the book, and began reading out loud. Occasionally I snuck a peek at him. His entire body emanated love.
I don’t have words to describe the experience–best I can find right now is as if compassion and grace pulsed between us, expanding floor to ceiling, wall to wall. When I finished, I looked at him and said, “Justin, I love you. I’m so glad you are my son.” He replied, “I  love you, Mom.”

Later, when I came home from my class, he was asleep. I looked into his bedroom, pausing. His sixteen year old boy body was buried in flannel sheets and a lumpy down comforter encased by a denim duvet cover I’d sewed for him years earlier.

The next day was a Tuesday. I had to go to my office in Denver, an hour away.

Justin asked to stay home from school, said he was sick. His head was warm. I dampened a washcloth, adding a few drops of lavender essential oil. I held my hands on his forehead, softly saying, “I’ll stay home honey.” He said, “No Mom, I’ll be okay. You go.”

I left barely in time to make an 11:30 lunch meeting. I’d put the telephone near him, already dialed his Dad’s office so all he had to do was press redial if he needed anything. I told him I wouldn’t call, in case he was asleep. I asked him to call me when he woke up.

By 2:30 when I hadn’t heard from Justin, and he wasn’t answering the telephone, an eerie, icy coldness gripped me. I couldn’t explain it–a slight panic grew in me. I called my husband, Jim, asking if he’d heard from Justin. He said, “no.” I asked him to go home and check on him. I insisted. He was at work too–but he was only twenty minutes away from home. I knew if he couldn’t, I would drive home from Denver to Fort Collins. “It’s really important, please,” I said. Jim promised he would. I hung up the phone, wrapped a few things up, and left the office to cross West 32nd Avenue to get a double espresso before a few more hours of meetings.

In the middle of the street, my cell phone rang. Answering quickly, I listened to my husband carefully speak five words: “Justin has taken his life.”

I stumbled toward the sidewalk, beginning to moan, “No, no, no.” I needed to stop time. Questions erupted in me: Why? How? What if…? If only…? Suddenly I stopped. A very deep part of me began to ask, What am I going to do with this?

I didn’t want this, wouldn’t choose it, but from a faraway place, I knew I would have a choice to make. Blessed shock began to flood my veins, numbing me to full comprehension of the nightmare beginning to unfold. My life had already borne witness to God’s transformative grace in difficult circumstances. I could only hope that this would be no exception.

Five years have passed. It is 2011. I now live in Alaska, with my two dogs. The anniversary is 24 January. But my body remembers a Tuesday. And then that Wednesday, and days following. Memories return more frequently now–from days and years prior to 2006. I smile and laugh often, even as grieving roars through me, taking me by surprise. I’m not sure how a forty-eight year old woman can cry and moan in agony, knees to gut. It is a wave I ride. It comes less often now, and resembles a shorebreak wave. Harsh and powerful. However, I’ve learned to stay with the current, the flow. I’m not afraid I will drown. I’m grateful for salty tears, and my son’s life.

I suspect that if he could, Justin would rock me now–like I did him when he was a boy. In truth, he often does–through dreams, signs, jokes, nature, my writing, and in conversations with people who share stories. Death is a part of life, and life is part of death. Perhaps life is a sacred circle, and the circumference is love. I’m grateful for God, for family, for friends, and for strangers. Most of all, I’m grateful for my son. I’d chose him again, again, and again.

This is a link to the story, “One Mother’s Dream.” It’s my story of becoming a foster adoptive mother, Justin’s mother.  It’s also Justin’s story of a forever family.

I love you my son. I’ll be okay. I know you can hear me, too.

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A Dog Teaches Me To Trust Love, Trust Myself


Around ten pm, a few days before Christmas,  I sat cross-legged gazing through the burnished glass of a wood stove. Heat rippled toward my face. Flicking flames evoked emotions and memories: a needlepoint Santa stocking for a boy who no longer lives, the ending of a marriage I held precious, decisions that tangle and untangle a life. My two–outdoor only–dogs snoozed nearby. A few weeks earlier I decided to bring them inside with me. It was the best present I’ve given them–and myself.

Kenai, the five year old Chesapeake Bay Retriever came over, prodding my forearm, seeking attention. I stretched out on the carpet; he laid full length next to me.  I stroked the groove between his eyes with my thumb. Tears prickled my nose and eyes, unbidden. Something melted in me. I want to learn to love this fiercely again. I want to share radical unconditional love. I blinked unexpected tears, continuing to pet his fur.  While wood crackled and popped, I realized how defended and sheltered my heart is. Kenai stayed still, simply present.

Dogs teach us. This was not the first time Kenai had been my companion. I think he is an angel in disguise.

He went missing in the wilds of Granite Canon, Wyoming, for nine months. Only a pup, his loss came three months after the death of my only child. That was nearly five years ago. Then a miracle occurred.

It was New Year’s Day, 2007.  I’d returned to northern Colorado from a visit to Alaska, and welcomed the new year,  standing on a snowy ridge top in Wyoming. I called to my lost pup–the only visible movement  in a vast horizon. Kenai bolted through snowdrifts  into my arms, with whimpers and cries. I buried my hands in his fur that day too–later realizing no human hands had touched him for nine months.  Our story “Lost and Found” was printed a Chicken Soup book.

I remember the miracle, and share my 2011 happy new year wish: May we learn to live with fierce tenderness and unmeasured mutuality.

This is an excerpt from Lost and Found followed by a link to the full story. May peace be with you, and me.

…A new year

January 1 dawned clear and sunny. We drove to Wyoming. Entering the ranch, we stopped to scan the landscape with binoculars. On a distant ridge we saw him. There was no doubt now. My stomach started to churn. Within a few minutes, we met Brenda. I could barely breathe. There was only room for one of us in her tractor cab. Jim stared at me and whispered, “Go.”

Maneuvering to the ridge top seemed longer than ten minutes. Cows followed as we lurched through icy snow drifts. The sun radiated brilliance against snow and rock. We stopped where Brenda had left food for Kenai. Heart pounding, I stepped from the cab.

Brenda backed the tractor away. I walked forward. Suddenly I saw a flash of brown on the other ridge. Clapping my hands, I called, “Kenai, Kenai, Kenaiii,” over and over and over. Could he hear me, would he remember?

Kenai stopped and sniffed the air. Instantly wiggling with recognition from nose to tail, he raced through snowdrifts toward me. Whimpers and cries erupted from both of us. I fell to my knees in the snow, arms wide open, calling him. I could see his puppy collar! A solid, furry hay-smelling body launched into my embrace. He was undersized, but unharmed. We jumped up, tumbled around each other, playing, touching, petting, tears pouring forth. I can’t believe he remembers! He’s safe!

When Jim was within one hundred yards of us, I knelt, presenting to him Kenai. Kenai looked to me, then rushed to Jim as I watched, sobbing with joy.

Oh yes, I hope. I believe.

– (c) Pegge Bernecker, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living Catholic Faith, 2008

Links
Read the full story: “Lost and Found.” See photos of Kenai and the Wyoming landscape where he lived.

Grief and Loss: “I don’t know what to say.”

Last week I spoke at a church in town. They asked me to talk about grief and loss, for ten to fifteen minutes—make it personal. An icy, snowy night, by 7:00 p.m. it had been dark three hours. My stamina was in the single digits, and I was cold. A dark chocolate woven rabbit fur scarf wrapped my neck and shoulders.

Standing in the dim lit church, behind the podium, I fingered the scarf tails, felt warm breath flood my chest, whispered a prayer to God, and then surprised myself by speaking, “My name is Pegge. I don’t know what to say.”

My eyes traveled around the wood church pews. Men, women, and a few young people had gathered. They spaced themselves, some sitting together, others alone. I took another breath, and again spoke, my voice amplifying through silent attentiveness:

“I don’t know what to say. And this is the experience of grief.”

More words came, “We don’t know what to say, or how to act. We may be fatigued, not think clearly, forgetful, and have very little energy. Memories surge, catch us off-guard. Some full of sorrow, others with laughter. The ache—numb, raw, and stabbing comes and goes with no predictable time-frame. So we show up as best we can, take ourselves lightheartedly, give ourselves permission to rest, say no, and feel what we feel.”

I think words tumbled from me about how grief makes tracks through the chill of loss, of believing that we are not alone, being willing to receive from others, and ask for help. I know I said, “I trust God. I am not alone.” After ten minutes, I concluded, and breathed into the stillness of listening hearts. I walked back to the first pew, sat down, silent, remembering. A card laid in my open bible, a bookmark for the passage I’d planned to read. Two words: Only connect… . A cello played, candles flamed for loved ones who died.

Tonight, what chimes for me again, is that whether we are the one grieving, or the one who accompanies a friend or loved one, there will be times when words do not, should not, and will not suffice. Dense bone weariness grows. Or, memories of play and joy surface with vivid intensity. At times like these, I pray we may give ourselves permission to be still. Breathe. Simply be present to ourselves, and one another, with gentleness, compassion, kindness.

–Pegge, December 16, 2010

Survival, Reunion. A new year story to remember.

Reflecting over the past decade, I remember the best New Year, ever. After the worst year, ever. Here's the remarkable story:

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Where Are You From?

Where are you from? Who are the people, places and experiences that shape and form the amazing critter of you? My son, Justin, wrote these words two months before he died.

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We Remember. Lives In Review, 2009

November 4, 2009: Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna, Alaska, holds a remembrance memorial day. My contribution of spiritual care for the doctors, nurses, health care providers, staff, and families is to create “Lives In Review” — a one page snapshot of everyone who died at CHP or Heritage Place during the previous twelve months. I read the obituaries, then write a slim glimpse of remembrance. This was shared today. We remember.

Lives in Review …
Central Peninsula Hospital, Soldotna, Alaska

Through time, our lives become a web of relationship and experience, joy and sorrow, finding the significant in the ordinary, and delight in the extraordinary. Imagine this: more than eighty clipped obituaries have fallen from my lap, and now scatter at my feet. All mixed up, no longer in chronological order, some lay face down. All around me are black and white faces—a smiling, silver-haired woman with spectacles, a probing look from a rugged young man with a brown goatee, a decorated war hero, and a tanned woman whose eyes shine with brilliant kindness. Each portrays a snapshot in time. There is a bit of chaos around me as I begin to pick up tattered newspaper clippings. But soon it will pass.  I, like all survivors who remain living when someone dies, will move breath by breath into the task at hand, into the next moment in time.

Everyone who works and serves at Central Peninsula Hospital and Heritage Place knows this to be true. It is also the experience for twenty-eight spouses, hundreds of brothers, sisters, and parents, 197 children, and more than 650 named grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews. It is true for coworkers, neighbors, aunts, uncles, and parents who knew one of the ninety-seven men and women who died this past year at CPH or Heritage Place. Although they no longer breathe beside us with a visible presence, they do live when we remember and recall their unique, particular lives.

Who are these remarkable people we remember? Forty-eight women, forty-seven men, and one child. Emily Hazel Kitchen is the elder, at age 99. The youngest, an infant. Only six were born in Alaska. Most everyone else arrived to join parents, siblings, children, or for “our final adventure together.” They come to The Great Land to serve in the military, travel as missionaries to Nome and the Kenai Peninsula, fly airplanes, build infrastructure, fish, hunt, homestead, raise families, and educate young people.

Family members share how men and women helped to start “the first ambulance service in Soldotna,” the “tourist center,” a “hot lunch program in Nome,” a “Christian based vocation school for youth in rural Alaska,” the “Peninsula Art Community,” “Gryphon Photography,” “Log Gift and Jewelry,” and the “Soldotna Senior Center.” With nicknames like Grandma Grape, Patman, Tootie, Banner, and Dr. Pipe, each person has a story.

Whether it is the feisty homesteader in Anchor Point, whose “rustic home in the middle of the woods often surprised visitors because it had curtains on all the windows and was filled with beautiful antiques” or the many men and women who run a boat on the Kenai or Kasilof River, commercial fish in Cook Inlet, hunt, play cards, quilt, pick berries, cook an “excellent apple crisp,” enjoy “morning coffee with the Sterling Bad Boys,” or “saw wood and build houses,” these are the kind of people who mirror the woman who, “loved fierce and was loved fierce in return.” They “receive perfect attendance” for many years of driving the school bus down Funny River Road, served on the “Alaska Commission on Status of Women,” the Soldotna city council, volunteer fire department, and as faculty at University of Alaska, Anchorage, and KPC.

A professional boxer, rodeo rider, ham radio operator, Rosie the Riveter, librarian, carpenter, stock car racer, dog trainer, or “weighing eighty-four pounds soaking wet” they are buried on the Kenai Peninsula, at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, and in the lower 48. Their ashes are planted in a home flower garden, and flow in the Kenai, Kasilof, and Anchor Rivers, in Kenai and Wif Lake, and Kachemak Bay.

Yes, it is true; together we crisscross through the web of time, breath by breath, task by task, day by day. We are grateful. And we remember.

kasilof-alaska-river-mouth-meets-cook-inlet

–Pegge Bernecker, Kasilof, Alaska, November 1, 2009

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Lives in Review … 2009 Central Peninsula Hospital, Soldotna, Alaska

Through time, our lives become a web of relationship and experience, joy and sorrow, finding the significant in the ordinary, and delight in the extraordinary. Imagine this: more than eighty clipped obituaries have fallen from my lap, and now scatter at my feet. All mixed up, no longer in chronological order, some lay face down. All around me are black and white faces—a smiling, silver haired woman with spectacles, a probing look from a rugged young man with a brown goatee, a decorated war hero, and a tanned woman whose eyes shine with brilliant kindness. Each portrays a snapshot in time. There is a bit of chaos around me as I begin to pick up tattered newspaper clippings. But soon it will pass.  I, like all survivors who remain living when someone dies, will move breath by breath into the task at hand, into the next moment in time.

Everyone who works and serves at Central Peninsula Hospital and Heritage Place knows this to be true. It is also the experience for twenty eight spouses, hundreds of brothers, sisters, and parents, 197 children, and more than 650 named grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews. It is true for coworkers, neighbors, aunts, uncles, and parents who knew one of the ninety-seven men and women who died this past year at CPH or Heritage Place. Although they no longer breathe beside us with a visible presence, they do live when we remember and recall their unique, particular lives.

Who are these remarkable people we remember? Forty-eight women, forty-seven men, and one child. Emily Hazel Kitchen is the elder, at age 99. The youngest, an infant. Only six were born in Alaska. Most everyone else arrived to join parents, siblings, children, or for “our final adventure together.” They come to The Great Land to serve in the military, travel as missionaries to Nome and the Kenai Peninsula, fly airplanes, build infrastructure, fish, hunt, homestead, raise families, and educate young people.

Family members share how men and women helped to start “the first ambulance service in Soldotna,” the “tourist center,” a “hot lunch program in Nome,” a “Christian based vocation school for youth in rural Alaska,” the “Peninsula Art Community,” “Gryphon Photography,” “Log Gift and Jewelry,” and the “Soldotna Senior Center.” With nicknames like Grandma Grape, Patman, Tootie, Banner, and Dr. Pipe, each person has a story.

Whether it is the feisty homesteader in Anchor Point, whose “rustic home in the middle of the woods often surprised visitors because it had curtains on all the windows and was filled with beautiful antiques” or the many men and women who run a boat on the Kenai or Kasilof River, commercial fish in Cook Inlet, hunt, play cards, quilt, pick berries, cook an “excellent apple crisp,” enjoy “morning coffee with the Sterling Bad Boys,” or “saw wood and build houses,” these are the kind of people who mirror the woman who, “loved fierce and was loved fierce in return.” They “receive perfect attendance” for many years of driving the school bus down Funny River Road, served on the “Alaska Commission on Status of Women,” the Soldotna city council, volunteer fire department, and as faculty at University of Alaska, Anchorage, and KPC.

A professional boxer, rodeo rider, ham radio operator, Rosie the Riveter, librarian, carpenter, stock car racer, dog trainer, or “weighing eighty-four pounds soaking wet” they are buried on the Kenai Peninsula, at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, and in the lower 48. Their ashes are planted in a home flower garden, and flow in the Kenai, Kasilof, and Anchor Rivers, in Kenai and Wif Lake, and Kachemak Bay.

Yes, it is true; together we crisscross through the web of time, breath by breath, task by task, day by day. We are grateful. And we remember.

–Pegge Bernecker, Kasilof, Alaska, 2009

Grace In Motion

I received an unexpected "Happy Mother's Day" on Frontier Airlines flight 836...

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