The First Thanksgiving: Pairing Grief AND Gratitude (A Life Interrupted)

Sometimes, only one person is missing, and the whole world seems depopulated.

Alphonse de Lamartine, author
The Thanksgiving Table (November 2020)

I did it. But I wish I didn’t have to.

I made a full Thanksgiving meal on my own. I roasted a turkey. Peeled a mountain of potatoes. Used the drippings to make gravy. Baked a pan full of dressing, green beans, dinner rolls, an apple crumb pie, plus loads of turkey-themed cookies. I even opened a can of cranberry sauce (it’s okay, you can laugh at me). In all my 45 years of life, I’ve never done this before…never attempted to, never wanted to, and never needed to—but these are strange times that we’re living in and strange times apparently demand complete turkey dinners on Thanksgiving…especially when your Mom is gone.

The duality of living in today’s pandemic is evident everywhere you go. In one day you can see groups of friends hanging out and carrying on without a care in the world and turn the corner to see fully masked families heading into the local grocery store. Our elderly suffer from isolation in their golden years and our healthcare workers are overwhelmed and stressed while millions of others continue to call COVID-19 a hoax to their faces. Daily, Americans walk through temperature checkpoints to get to school, work, or to travel while others plan block parties and the like. There are rallies and protests. I even read about some well-meaning parents who hosted a homecoming dance and now dozens of kids have tested positive. I’m not judging. My own family walks in this duality. We occasionally see local friends, we work outside our home, my kids go to the gym, play sports, and try to maintain normalcy all while walking this line with masks in hand. I jokingly remind them “it’s COVID out there” and ask them to stay socially distanced as they head out the door. When they come home, I greet them and immediately send them to the sink to wash their hands. We’re not perfect. At this point in the pandemic, we’ve all had moments where we’ve let our guard down and subsequently prayed that we don’t pay the penalty. Strange times, indeed.

Nine months in and I can no longer count the number of family members who have contracted COVID-19 on my fingers. I don’t want to attempt to count the number of people in my circle who have had it and my heart breaks when I think about how the Coronavirus has affected my hometown in western Kansas. I have prayed for a number of individuals who have battled, struggled, and won. Praise God! And I have cried for those who weren’t so fortunate. As I write this the death toll in the United States is 267,000+

My mother is one of them.

It’s bizarre to grieve in a pandemic. The normal grieving process is both individual and communal, but when you can’t see family members for fear of contracting or spreading a virus, the grieving process becomes even more peculiar. And when your lost loved one is a victim of that same pandemic, you proceed cautiously and carefully. Honestly, there are days where it feels like you’re barely proceeding at all—like you’re standing still while the world has moved on.

You know the saying, “once bitten, twice shy?” Those are the eggshells that I walk on daily. I know how devastating and life-changing this virus can be. There are hundreds of thousands of people who should have been at the Thanksgiving table with their families this year, but they’re not. Empty chairs, not just in my home, but everywhere. Traditions not just broken, but shattered. Those of us who have lost family members and friends to COVID-19 are experiencing this heartbreak over and over as the narrative has gone from “we’re all in this together” to “there’s nothing to see here, folks.” And yet the pandemic and the loss of life go on.

There are hundreds of thousands of people who should have been at the Thanksgiving table with their families this year, but they’re not. Empty chairs, not just in my home, but everywhere. Traditions not just broken, but shattered.

a Life Interrupted

As we move into this unusual holiday season I can feel myself picking up the pieces of my broken heart non-stop. Normal Thanksgiving meant a road trip across the state with my kids. Normal Thanksgiving meant consulting with my mom, sister and sisters-in-law about what we would each contribute to the meal. Normal Thanksgiving meant hugs and seeing my nieces and nephews. Normal Thanksgiving is game nights, snacks and cousin sleepovers. Normal Thanksgiving is coffee with my best friend. Normal Thanksgiving meant going to my mom’s house instead of making a complete Thanksgiving meal on my own.

I did it. But I wish I didn’t have to. In fact, I would have traded anything for it not to be the way that it is.

It was the first Thanksgiving without my Mom and at every turn, we paired our grief with gratitude. I miss my mother so much and my appreciation for the time we had together has continuously grown. Today, I am even more thankful and grateful for her love and influence on my life. Often times I feel like my mother’s memory lives in the kitchen which was so appropriate as I prepared the meal. And while she has been on my mind constantly, in missing her this Thanksgiving I felt like she was very present…somehow still mothering me…urging me to make the most of the holiday, not just for me, but for my kids. That’s the kind of mother she was. Give, give, and give some more. Grieve, but be grateful. In the back of my mind, I kept hearing “keep the traditions.” In my heart, her memory confirmed the feeling that forward is the best option, the only option.

If you know me, you know I take tons of photos and videos. I document everything. (It’s the reporter in me). As Thanksgiving approached this year and the memories started popping up on social media, my daughter said to me, “Mom, I’m so glad you take all the photos and the videos so we can see and hear each other. It makes me sad, but it also makes me happy. We laugh a lot.” Taking photos and videos to share this Thanksgiving seemed extra important. And Casey is right, we do laugh a lot. In many ways, sharing photos and videos are the only way for the whole family to be together while we continue to grieve miles apart.

In the mix of photos I took this year is this one of me at our Thanksgiving table just before the meal was served with an accomplished grin on my face. And guess what, Mom? I didn’t break the oven like I did that time I tried making strudel! I know you’re proud…and maybe even a little bit relieved. We saved you a seat.

“In the day when I cried out, You answered me, and made me bold with strength in my soul.” Psalm 138:3


“A Life Interrupted” is an ongoing series of blog posts dealing with the loss of my mother to COVID-19.

Today, I Screwed Up the Rice (A Life Interrupted)

“Cooking and mealtimes are some of the most overlooked aspects of grief,” Heather Nickrand, author of Culinary Grief Therapy

Taco dinner complete with pico de gallo, black beans and Mexican rice.

My mother was a fabulous cook. She had this amazing way of making something truly delicious out of nothing at all. Looking back, she would have been a great contestant on The Food Network show, “Chopped.” You know the one where they give you a mismatched basket of food items and ask you to miraculously make something amazing out of it in 15 minutes flat. She was that good. One of my favorite memories of her cooking was just how much she could do with eggs. She could make them a million ways and they were always BOMB—and if she had cheese and tortillas—lookout because you were about to meet your new favorite dish. Breakfast for dinner was an absolute treat as a kid. She was creative, innovative, and basically a food magician. I miss this about her.

I’m not really a cook. I mean, I do cook, but I’m definitely not on her level. I am a baker though. We complemented each other this way. She would make my favorite dish when I would visit home (tostadas) and I would make oatmeal chocolate chip cookies or apple pie. In those moments, all was right with the world. And while I don’t consider myself a great cook, most of what I know, she taught me.

When my son was still a baby she showed me how to make Mexican rice. Sean loved to eat it, it was soft, fluffy, and flavorful. I can remember the first lesson in my kitchen and the subsequent lessons in her kitchen as she helped me perfect it. Mom cooked according to looks and taste, I, however, needed a mathematical formula. Through a series of trials and errors, I finally figured it out. Using an equation (yes, I am a nerd), I can figure out how to make any amount of Mexican rice needed to feed any size group. You can call it a gift…but mostly it’s a nerd thing.

After my Mom passed away, life was a blur. Daily chores were neglected, my mind foggy, I felt extremely lost. I’m sure I was exhausted in every sense of the word—mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually…you name it. And yet, people needed to eat. It was probably three weeks later when I finally got around to cooking something “real.” I decided on tacos, a dish I was certain I could make in my sleep, and of course an accompanying pan of Mexican rice. Every part of the process was agonizing. Each ingredient a tangible reminder of the mother/daughter and teacher/student relationship we had when it came to food. I immediately went to my Mexican rice math equation, but there was nothing. After almost two decades of memorization, my reliable recipe (formula) escaped me. I stood there looking at an empty pan, uncooked rice in hand and I couldn’t remember step one. Nothing, then tears.

I remember thinking, please, Lord, don’t let me forget this! I need to know how to do this. I can’t lose this. I’ve already lost too much. Please, help me to remember.

Here is the part where you might expect a sudden revelation. I hate to tell you this, but there was none. I tried. I cried. I screwed up the rice. Not only that, but I screwed it up the next time and the time after that. Time and time again I stood there, dumbfounded and lost. In the big scheme of things, forgetting how to make Mexican rice doesn’t seem like a disaster and yet it was. It all was. The pandemic, losing my Mom, coping, and trying to move on. It was all a disaster. The kids ate variations of crunchy, under seasoned, too wet, blah tasting Mexican rice…encouraging me all the way. I can remember my daughter, Casey, saying, “You’ll figure it out. Go slow.” These are phrases that I often say to my kids when they’re struggling and being hard on themselves. Hearing these words directed at me stopped me in my tracks. When a child repeats something you have frequently (or incessantly) told them it’s a parenting compliment, a parenting win. Honestly, though, I think it’s just called the circle of life.

I remember the frustration of learning new things as a child. Somethings came naturally, but for me, cooking wasn’t intuitive. My Mom was always gracious in her teaching. I went to college only knowing how to make cereal and grilled cheese, but through her guidance (and many telephone calls) learned to make so much more! I went through my Rachel Ray phase about the same time the internet and smartphones became a part of daily living enabling me to share my mealtime creations with just a click. I remember a phone conversation where she walked me through making a rue. I was terribly unsuccessful. We tried an in-person lesson on my next visit home. Still unsuccessful. It probably took me five years to learn, all the while she would say, “You’ll figure it out. Go Slow.” Yes, definitely, the circle of life.

You might be surprised to know that cooking wasn’t my Mom’s favorite thing. Talented as she was, and I’m convinced food was one of her love languages, she did it for us and for others lucky enough to be at her kitchen table. And, she always made it fun! I come from a large family, so preparing meals for gatherings was time-consuming. No matter, we all just piled into the kitchen and got to work. Mom was great at delegating tasks according to our abilities. This makes me laugh because most of my expertise was in chopping vegetables while my sister, Amanda, was in charge of more complicated (and delicious) menu items that required actual cooking and seasoning. All the granddaughters would get involved —assembly-line style—for enchiladas (a family favorite!) No one ever complained as being a part of Mom’s kitchen crew meant lots of taste testing and samples. A huge perk to the process! By far, the biggest win for me personally was the day my Mom complimented me on my Mexican rice. I carry those words around like a badge of honor, then and now.

So when I failed to remember how to make the Mexican rice, it felt like I was losing something special. In true resolute fashion, I refused to give up. With my Mom’s words in my head, I kept trying. Shortly after she passed I came across a social media post that said, “Be the things you love about the people who are gone.” I saved it on my phone, a poignant reminder on the hardest days. I’m not a cook. I don’t believe I’ve been gifted with that ability, but for my family, cooking and time in the kitchen were so much more than that. I believe my Mom cooked because she loved us and it kept us close. The kitchen was always the center of our home life growing up. The heart of the home, it’s still one of the rooms I spend the most time in, my kids, too.

It’s been more than four months now, and I’m not screwing up the rice anymore. I finally remembered the recipe (formula) and hope that I’m never in a place to forget it again as part of my Mother’s memory lives in the kitchen. She’s in every drawer as she has gifted me with a number of utensils and tools. She lives in the cupboard and the refrigerator as she has influenced the things I love to eat and feed my family. She lives on the countertop, her whiteboard taking up center stage on the kitchen island. And she’s certainly in my cookbook as I try to maintain the recipes and traditions that I’ve grown up with and pass them on to my own children.

May I be all the good things that I love about her…today and every day.

“Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10

“A Life Interrupted” is an ongoing series of blog posts dealing with the loss of my mother to COVID-19.

Renaming the Stages of Grief (A Life Interrupted)

This rainbow appeared in the sky on the evening of Mom’s funeral.

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”  William Shakespeare

You can call it a charmed life, a blessing or maybe it was just dumb luck, but my experience with grief has been minimal until recently.  I barely remember attending funerals as a kid and when we did, I really didn’t have a strong connection to the departed.  However, all that has changed in adulthood…especially in the last few years.  And here, in 2020, I feel like I’ve been hit with the worst heartache yet after losing my Mom.

Now that I find myself in the throes of grief I’ve become well aware of the stages that accompany it: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  As I continue to process, I realize that a more apt description might be “stages of loss” rather than grief as so many therapists acknowledge these stages include every type of bereavement and are most certainly not limited to death.  Regardless of the type of loss, the stages still exist and the process is never easy.

One of my strongest personality traits is dutifulness.  I clearly get that from my parents and it’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the last few months.  I approach life in a resolute fashion.  I like lists…there’s a certain satisfaction that comes with crossing things off.  I also keep a handwritten calendar and methodically cross off the days (I’ve been ridiculed for this one).  I set reminders, use post-its, carry a reporter’s notepad, etc.  All of this helps me keep up with my commitments and uphold my obligations.  I know that people expect things from me and I work hard to fulfill my responsibilities. It’s important to me.  So when approaching loss I immediately went to research the stages of grief and anticipated checking them off one by one.  Let me tell you, this is not how grief works.

Turns out the stages of grief don’t necessarily go in order and they can (and often do) repeat, sometimes more than once…if not endlessly.  This is problematic for stoic types like me who eagerly want to cross things off the list and move forward.  I am not a dweller, but my pragmatic approach to grief isn’t really working out.  I’m not sure what I expected here.  I knew the road would be hard. And while most buy into “the time heals all wounds” camp, as a realist, I know that time doesn’t necessarily heal anything.  A loss will always be a loss— a hard consequence of love.

As I move through this process, I’ve taken it upon myself to rename the stages of grief…making them more applicable for me.  Do with them what you will, but I’ve found these slight variances helpful, healing, and hopeful as I continue to sort out the emotions of losing one of the most beloved figures in my life.

DISBELIEF, not denial.  I know my Mother is gone.  I very well remember speaking to her when she tested positive for COVID-19.  I recall the day she told me she scheduled the drive-thru appointment and we went over her symptoms.  I remember the first and second time she was taken to the emergency room.  I don’t deny the fear and angst that followed.  None of us can deny the three weeks she spent in ICU.  We can’t deny the emotional ups and downs that accompanied the good and bad days in the hospital.  There is no denying that she is gone, no denying the funeral, and no denying the loss.  She isn’t here and I feel it every day, but sometimes I can’t believe all of this happened.  Not to her, not to my strong Mother.  I can’t tell you how many times I still reach for my phone…to call her, to text her.  We had so many plans.

AVOIDANCE, not anger.  I’m not really an angry person.  I can get mad, I can even be a bit of a hothead if you catch me on a bad day.  I have a passionate nature, but I’ve never seen anger solve one single thing.  For me, anger has no purpose.  People have asked me if I’m angry at God.  I am not— the thought hasn’t even crossed my mind.  What I do know is that lately it’s been easier to just avoid emotion altogether.  The loss is raw and if I think about it too much the sadness can be overwhelming.  I know that’s to be expected, but I feel like I can’t live in sadness.  For better or worse, I am guilty of avoiding the emotional component of grief until it seeps out from the corners of my eyes.  I’m doing the best I can to deal with it in small doses.  Losing my Mother is not fair, but it’s not fair for anyone who loses a loved one.

UNCONTROLLABLE TEARS, not bargaining.  As I move out of the “100-day fog,” I am reluctantly beginning to accept the new normal…and right now the new normal involves a lot of tears.  I’m not bargaining, there’s nothing to bargain about.  Therapists often say that “guilt is the wingman of bargaining.”  This is the part of grief where the questions and “what-ifs” take over, followed by guilt for not doing more, making different decisions, and on and on.  What if COVID-19 didn’t happen?  What if we made Mom stay home?  What if we had sought care sooner?  What if…what if…what if…?  The never-ending questions remind me of the old adage about worrying and rocking chairs, both give you something to do, but ultimately get you nowhere.  I know better than to negotiate over things I cannot control and I guess that’s where the uncontrollable tears come in.  Death and loss, they humble you.  They remind us of our humanness, our vulnerability, and that we are most certainly not capable of controlling most things in this life.  I cry over songs on the radio, television shows, photographs, and memories…both good and bad.  If I could make things different, I would…but I can’t…and thus, the tears.  You can’t bargain with tears.

GOOD/BAD DAYS, not depression.*  In my heart of hearts, I truly believe that it’s ok to be sad.  I remember journaling once that to truly know good, one has to fully know bad.  I have been asked countless times over the last few months if I am depressed.  I am not, but I am sad, grief-stricken, heartbroken, and emotionally exhausted.  My Mother is gone.  My world forever changed.  I will miss her every day for the rest of my life.  And yet I know, forward is the only option.  Forward is the best option.  On good days, I laugh and smile remembering and retelling funny stories and sharing treasured memories about my Mom.  On bad days I pray for peace and comfort knowing how fully blessed I am to have called her my Mother.  Then, the process repeats.

PEACE, not acceptance.  In the stages of grief, acceptance comes when one faces their new reality.  There’s an understanding that things will never be the same.  For me, acceptance is not that far removed from denial.  I knew from the moment I received that phone call that things would never be the same.  Not “accepting” the circumstances didn’t make them less real.  There’s no denying the loss and accepting the situation wasn’t negotiable.  Throughout this whole process, I have prayed for peace, an emotional status where there is tranquility and my soul is well.  I have seen this.  I have experienced this.  I have felt this with my whole being.  Right now, that kind of peace is inconsistent, but I know and trust that a feeling of permanent peace will fill my heart one day.

Obviously, the grieving process is difficult.  There are no shortcuts, although most of us will try to find some.  When I talk to my kids about the stages of grief I remind them that there’s communal grief and personal grief.  The communal grief we experience together, as a family.  We deeply feel this type of loss at family gatherings and holidays.  The personal grief is how we process the loss individually.  For most of us, this type of grief is so much harder, but avoiding the stages of grief doesn’t help.  Postponing the sadness will not move us forward.  It’s ok to be sad.  It’s ok to have all the feelings.  It’s ok to talk about the loss because losing someone changes you.

Losing someone changes you.

Because the LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.  Psalm 34:18

*Depression is real.  If you need help, please reach out.

“A Life Interrupted” is an ongoing series of blog posts dealing with the loss of my mother to COVID-19.

 

 

 

From Gray to Grace

Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.  Haruki Murakami

Last week’s tragedy will never make sense.  No answer will ever be good enough.  Understanding will likely never come.  A life cut short.  Senseless violence.

IMG_3392

ERNIE ORTIZ 1949-2019

It has been said that we’re all one phone call away from dropping to our knees. And nothing has ever been more true. Human life is fragile and fleeting. Most of us naively walking around as if we have all the time in the world, as if our days are not numbered, as if we have some sense of control…and sadly, we do not.  And while life itself is a gift, we don’t always live like it.  Our words, our actions, our brokenness speak for themselves reminding us that we are all fallible humans.  Even the best of us walk the line between sinner and saint daily.

So it is no surprise that at some point, we all find ourselves here…struggling with loss in its many forms, be it friendships, relationships, marriages, jobs, hopes or dreams, but I feel it is the loss of life that hurts the most.  It’s inescapable.  Unavoidable.  The grief, the permanency, maybe even the unknown…it fills our thoughts, occupies our hearts and often leaves wounds that never quite heal.

Statistically, death occurs on a bell curve with our most vulnerable moments at the beginning and the end of our life spans.  If you’re lucky, it’s something one only deals with during their latter days.  We know that death due to age, illness, and disease remain tragic, but a life taken too soon, a life snuffed out, a life robbed at any age hurts as if it’s been compounded tenfold.  Many will tell you that time heals all wounds.  Maybe.  More realistically though, time only allows for space between the hurt.

Finding peace is all circumstances isn’t easy.  In fact, it’s a lot of work.  If you’re not a Christian, I honestly don’t know how you do it.  For me, knowing that I have a God who walks beside me is something that I don’t take for granted.  When I am weak, He is my strength.  When I am lost, He is my rock.  Christ’s ultimate sacrifice reminds us that death doesn’t have the final say.  Uncle Ernie was a believer, I take comfort in that.  Our lives, our very existence is not in vain.  On the mountaintop and in the valley, there remains a plan and a purpose for each of us.

In the days and weeks to come, stories will be told and photos will be shared. In talking with family, we have chosen to focus on the “dash” and celebrate a life LIVED.  As poet Linda Ellis explains, “He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke of the following date with tears, but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.”  And what a dash it was!  Countless adventures, innumerable memories, and a bounty of friends.

When you’re a kid, life seems so black and white.  There’s good and evil.  Right and wrong.  The lines are clearly drawn.  As we grow up, move from adolescence through adulthood, we realize that life is actually more of a marbled gray.  Dark shades, complicated, stressful, and uneven as we navigate day to day living among the broken, but intermixed with bright hues, beautiful, joyful, and full of promise!  As we all inch forward, I pray that we move from that marbled gray into grace!  Life is too short to live any other way.  Let us approach each other more tenderly and offer love, patience, and kind words…only then can we truly find resolve (and maybe even peace) along the way.

Rest Easy, Uncle Ernie.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 

2 Corinthians 5:1