We all grieve differently, in our own way and in our own time. The process cannot be forced, or rushed, or altered by good intentions and unsolicited advice given us by well-wishers.
In time, the sharp edges of grief are worn smooth, and sadness remains, but where grief cuts, sadness softens instead, and makes pliable hearts made rigid by the cold vulgarity of our times. A touch of sadness can be a wise companion.
Grief can strike at any time. When we are younger, we feel immortal in a culture which has not experienced the hardships endured by other parts of the world. Death for us is virtual and pixelated. It is a bad ending for a game that can always be replayed. Just be sure to save your game often.
We hide away the natural process of aging with technology and disguise, and when aging becomes inconvenient, we store our elders in institutions, out of sight and mind, to be cared for by someone else. We visit grandma for an hour at Thanksgiving and tell her how nice her room looks and how comfortable it must be, glancing at our watches.
One day time catches up to us, and we are shocked, as if we have been victimized by some kind of injustice. We take it personally. It is personal, but so it was also for everyone we chose to disregard until it was our turn.
I think there may be such a thing as generational grief. We ignored it when our parents spoke of the way things used to be, shook their heads in puzzlement at our disdainful attitudes, and watched their friends and family start to disappear one by one. Now it’s our turn. A generation is retiring, stepping back, and exiting the stage. It is being gradually and inexorably replaced by people as different from them as they were from their parents.
Strauss and Howe examine this process in detail in their seminal work, “The Fourth Turning.” According to their theory, every hundred years or so, the generations line up in a way that the differences are irreconcilable, and the result is discord and unrest. The last time such an exchange occurred was just before WWI.
These thoughts were bouncing in my head one day like Pachinko balls. The anniversary of our mother’s passing was coming up, and I was revisiting the sadness. It’s bad to lose a parent. It can be even worse when you stop to consider that you’re next in line.
Sometimes synchronicity and serendipity combine to confront our sadness and remind us that we are not alone in God’s creation. I was looking through dusty boxes stored in the old family home and beginning the process of cleaning out the basement. Tucked away in a corner was a tightly sealed tub labeled in my mother’s handwriting. It said simply, “Quilt pieces.”
When I opened the box, I found hundreds of carefully cut squares of material and memory. There was part of a jacket I used to wear to grammar school, a small stack of squares cut from the curtains that hung in the bedroom I shared with my brother, a piece of the lining of Dad’s old hunting jacket, and part of an apron Mom had made for herself and worn on countless occasions.
The memories unfolded with each piece of cloth, and I handled them gingerly, almost reluctantly, like something precious and ephemeral. For a moment I saw through my mother’s eyes, shared her memories, her hope and her sadness in watching children grow up and leave, growing out of their old clothes, venturing ever farther out the door until one day, never returning to live under her roof again.
Through her eyes I watched us coming home from college on the weekends with a load of dirty laundry, leaving outfits abandoned to ever changing fashion, but preserved in squares of memory in her box. I pictured her in the empty nest looking forward to the holiday visits and the phone calls. There was a piece of that ugly Christmas sweater we gave her one year. I unfolded a record of her memories one square at at time, and each time a little further down the road and farther away.
The making of a patchwork quilt is a tradition which has all but disappeared from American life. Like so much that is lost in the turning of generations, it is a cherished memory for some and a quaint anachronism for others. A quilt is a bridge between the past and the future. My mother’s box of cloth was a box of hope. In it she saw a keepsake that would preserve for someone else the memories that were precious to her.
Like so many of our unrealized dreams, she never got around to making that quilt. I feel a sense of loss because of that, not so much for the sake of a quilt, but for all the other hopes and dreams she had that were sacrificed for the sake of family, or taken from her by life itself. Such are the hurts we may never see until they happen to us.
Though our mother never made the quilt of her vision, her handiwork still endures. Her love and sacrifice, her integrity and wit are still remembered by those who knew her. Her humor would sneak up and catch you by surprise, and it still makes us smile so many years later. An act of kindness is like the light of a star which travels on eternally. Her wisdom and kindness are forever woven into the tapestries of the lives she touched. Because of her, I learned how to overcome sadness with gratitude, and I’m thankful for every square in the patchwork quilt of my own life.
Perhaps one day I will also learn to sew, but until then, I can still weave together the stories she left me, and pass them on.
The best possible companion for sadness is gratitude