Monday, September 27, 2021

Voices of Experience: The Art of Reassembly

The Aftergrief is where we learn to live with a central paradox of bereavement: that a loss can recede in time yet remain so exquisitely present.  ~ Hope Edelman 

In The Art of Reassembly: A Memoir of Early Mother Loss and Aftergrief, author Peg Conway shares her journey of reassembling the forgotten pieces of her past ~ garnered from photos and keepsakes as well as conversations and travel to places she once lived. She rediscovers the mom she barely knew, and in the process discovers that truth, no matter how painful, heals us.

This poignant memoir set in the Midwest takes readers on a journey from the depths of denial to the joy of self-discovery while offering fascinating glimpses into approaches to healing, including Healing Touch energy therapy, which Peg practices. In the excerpt that follows, she describes how she decided to introduce her own children to the grandmother they had never known:

The traffic light ahead turned yellow, so I started to press the minivan’s brakes. It was uncanny how often we were stopped at this intersection on our way to school. Waiting for the light to be green again, I gazed toward the building on my left, just up a small hill, that always sparked a pang of longing. It was a children’s grief center, housed in space borrowed from the adjacent church. I would have loved a program like that as a child, I thought, for the hundredth time. 

A woman in our neighborhood volunteered there and knew the founder. Once when we were walking together, she told me all about how it had opened nearly fifteen years earlier in 1986, just the second one in the country. I became curious about children’s grief in general and returned to the large but cozy bookstore where I had purchased Motherless Daughters, this time seeking a category rather than a specific title. 

I was fortunate to discover The Grieving Child by Helen Fitzgerald, another pioneer in the field who got her start when she became widowed at a young age with four children. Reading it felt like I had entered my native country. Yes, children need truthful explanations about death in simple language. They need to express their feelings. Most importantly for me, the book also acknowledged in a whole separate chapter that adults may be working through childhood loss. It might be helpful, it suggested, to educate the children in your life to help them cope with death when it inevitably occurs, a kind of retrospective paying forward of what you would have wanted at their age. 

My children needed education about death in the past, I realized. They were unaware that I had a mother who died. I still addressed Ag as Mom, and they called her Grandma. No pictures of my mom or us with her were displayed at my parents’ home or ours, although I possessed some. Nothing in my children’s immediate realm prompted questions about my parentage, which made initiating the conversation even more awkward. 

The prospect of introducing the idea that mothers could die at all—along with the fact that their own mom had endured this painful loss—stressed me so much that initially I froze up. I did not want to frighten them or, most of all, to alter their perception of me as a capable, normal mom. 

Ultimately, as The Grieving Child advised, being forthright with my children seemed preferable to “protecting” them from difficult realities. My journey thus far with the Inner Lost Girl also supported the candid approach. I wanted my children to know the whole story. Our Catholic practice, where November is a time to remember the dead, provided a natural framework to expand their awareness into more delicate territory. 

The kids were seven, nine, and eleven years old the first time I displayed relatives’ pictures on the front-hall credenza for the feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’ to kick off the month. I included my mom in a selection that also contained their great-grandparents on both sides. 

Trying to sound casual, I presented my mom’s picture, a portrait of her on her wedding day. “Now, this is someone you haven’t really heard about before. Actually, I had a mom before Grandma. Her name was Mary Lee, and she died when I was young. So, she’s your grandma too.” 

Christian soon drifted away, but Michael and Kieran kept their eyes trained on my face, rapt. I swallowed the lump in my throat and plunged on. 

“Remember Uncle Bill and Aunt Margie, who we see some- times? Well, Uncle Bill was her twin brother, and Jeanne and Judy, remember, they’re my aunts, her younger sisters.” 

“How old were you?” Kieran asked.

“I was seven,” I replied.

“How did she die?” Michael wanted to know.

“Breast cancer,” I said. “Then, four years later, Grandpa got married to Ag, your grandma, and then Mark was born. That’s why he’s so much younger.” 

I saw the penny drop. A quick shadow sobered Michael’s expression. Kieran, eyebrows drawn together in concern, touched my arm lightly and said, “I’m so sad you had a mom that died.” A note of anguish lent her words precocious wisdom. 

We had already taught them what to say to the bereaved at a funeral visitation, but receiving such expression from her rattled me. I rallied with my standard reply, which seemed age-appropriate in this case. 

“Yes, it was hard and sad, but Grandpa and Uncle Mike and my grandparents took care of us. We had each other.” 

That seemed to settle the subject. After glancing again at the photos, they went off to play outside. I exhaled shakily but still felt satisfied with their introduction to my mom. 

© 2021 by Peg Conway

About the Author: Peg Conway writes and practices Healing Touch energy therapy in Cincinnati, OH, where she also volunteers at a children’s grief center. Her essays about early mother loss and long-term grieving have appeared at The Manifest-Station, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and The Mighty. After earning a master’s in journalism, she worked in corporate communications. Later, she became a certified childbirth educator and doula. Peg and her husband have three grown children and one grandchild. For a signed copy or to share a comment, contact Peg via email at Visit her Paths to Healing blog and connect with her on Facebook.

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