Making Space for Grief

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This week I'm saying happy birthday to my mom, and good-bye to the house I grew up in.

(Author photo)

This week I'm saying happy birthday to my mom, and good-bye to the house I grew up in.

I have the day off work today.

I’m celebrating my mom’s birthday. Had she lived, she would have been 72. So today is going to be a time for celebrating my mom by enjoying things we would have done together. I will eat cake. I will go to an art museum. I will read more of a novel by an author we both admired.

Over the last months, my grief over my mom’s death in January has shifted a bit. I no longer experience that crushing feeling I did in the early weeks — the panic that I couldn’t breathe because there was something pressing on my chest. I can talk about my mom now with love and laughter, and not be afraid that at any moment I’m going to burst into tears.

And yet the grief is always there, and I’m crying as I write this. I’ve taken Stephen Colbert’s excellent advice to simply make a place for the grief, to acknowledge that it’s always at the door and will find a way in if I don’t welcome it. I don’t try to shut it down, and sometimes I make specific plans to give it the space it needs. Like today, Mom’s birthday.

This week I'm saying happy birthday to my mom, and good-bye to the house I grew up in.

This week I’m saying happy birthday to my mom, and good-bye to the house I grew up in.

However, over the next week the grief triggers are going to be big ones. On Saturday, we are burying her ashes during a small, private family gathering. And on Tuesday, I will sign the final papers to close on the sale of the house I grew up in, the house that my mother lived in for forty years.

I’ve been thinking a bit about the significance of the number forty in the Bible, since I’m revising The Twible and have had my nose in a lot of biblical commentaries lately. Forty years in the wilderness for the Israelites; forty days in the desert for Jesus; forty days and nights of rain for Noah. Forty years on Willard Street for us.

In the biblical example, “forty” was something to endure in order to prepare for something better. A time of testing, maybe, or figuring out the way of things. I don’t feel that way about our family spending four decades in the same house; I feel profoundly grateful. Such solid grounding is not an experience that a lot of people get to have nowadays.

But there is also, on my part, a grief that is related to the loss of childhood. I am the grownup now. And other people, total strangers, will be cooking and opening Christmas presents and making changes in my house, my house of the creaky quarter-sawn oak and Victorian wallpaper.

Good-byes are part of life, part of leaving the wilderness for the Promised Land. I know this with my head. Today, as I spend time celebrating my mom, I will try to explain it to my heart.

  • Rachel

    40 weeks of pregnancy (of which I am nearing the end of welcoming with my body, what I will soon welcome with my home).

    You are a lovely example of making room for grief, and allowing others to mourn with you in your loss and in your love. I will be thinking very hard of you this week.

  • Marianne Waller

    Thank you, Jana. My heart is with you on Willard Street and in Galesburg (and Evansville) with Phyllis, who will always be my oldest friend.

  • Dianne

    Jana, I love the way you are making space for the nonlinear path of grief in your life. You are an example to me. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Rachel Hamrick

    Beautiful. Wishing you a day of happy memories, love, and healing.

  • Thanks, everyone. I appreciate your kindness.

  • Dean Bender

    Jana, You sound “in charge” of this journey you are on. May the Holy Spirit fill your heart with peace and hope as He filled my heart.
    You used the word “endure” to describe the 40’s you mentioned. I have never used that word in that context. Christ certainly did not “endure” those 40 days in the wilderness, even though he was fasting, as he was communing with the Father. The 40 days between the resurrection and the day of Pentecost were Spirit filled for the Apostles as the Savior would appear to them and teach them and love them. The forty years in the wilderness? Let’s see, did not have to fight the Egyptians to become free, no food preparation, no farming, gathering, hunting, pyramid making, or slave work, – just what did these people do? Yes, it must have been hot and dry and they had a big handful of problems – but those problems were spread out over 40 years. Also, the new generation was in preparation for living in the Promised Land. Must have been some teaching going on!
    But let’s talk about the important stuff. Six years ago my 33 year old son died in a vehicle accident. About three weeks after I returned to work, I put a 5 x 7 picture of him up on the wall in my office. This was partly to honor his memory but mostly to remind me every day that I still have a son, he lives and works in the Paradise of God. The next time I see him, I will fall upon his shoulder and weep for joy. At first, the picture, being right there, was hard. Soon it was easier and now, as I gaze at it, I smile broadly and thank Heavenly Father for entrusting him to me and for the years we had together.
    And I still miss him.
    Good Luck and may God Bless You as you mourn.

  • Daniel Shelton

    My name is Daniel Shelton; I am a social worker and grief counselor for a hospice in Las Vegas, NV. I have a Google Alert set on my computer for grief and grieving and recently your thoughts have popped up a couple times now. I am always looking for personal thoughts and experiences that might prove useful to those I serve and wanted to thank you for having the courage to share your difficult experiences. I wish you the best of luck in your personal healing and if there is anything I might be able to do to assist please don’t hesitate to ask.


    Daniel Shelton, LSW, MSW
    Family Home Hospice
    Bereavement Counselor/Coordinator
    8655 S Eastern
    Las Vegas, NV 89123

  • Daniel, thank you for that comment, and for doing the work you do. The people at hospice were enormously helpful to me in Mom’s last days.

  • JRSG

    To Daniel Shelton: What you do takes a special type of person.
    I have had my share of grief from death and from other experiences in my life. It is encouraging that today there is help for people who are going through loss.