Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Making Space for Grief

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.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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