An Opening: Revisiting An Old Loss
By Stephen Gilbert
I can't explain
where, after thirty-one years, the need to visit my mother's
grave came from. I was driving south on Highway 99, thinking
about this and wondering what to expect when I got there. I
first started feeling this need a few months earlier and had
ordered a copy of her death certificate from the Office of Vital
Statistics in Sacramento. The death certificate gave me
information that I had never known: what the coroner had
determined to be the cause of death, where she was found, that
she had been cremated, and where she was buried.
My older brother, who was then twenty-one, had made all the
arrangements for cremation and burial. He had not seen the urn
that mother was put in, nor the grave plot where she was buried.
Our family handled difficult times by getting the job done,
ignoring the pain and "bucking up" we were all
that way, even me at fourteen.
Not one of her children, a daughter and three sons, had ever
been to see her grave. Our mother represented some significantly
painful times in all our lives. As much as we claimed to have
moved on and gotten over these issues, we still couldn't bear to
be in her presence. So, now, here I was, entering unfamiliar and
somewhat frightening emotional territory, drawn by a need which
I could no longer ignore.
The cemetery personnel helped me find mother's plot. The sight
of her name engraved in the granite plaque began to bring the
reality of my mother into my heart. I sat in the grass before
her grave reading her name over and over, feeling in the same
breath a deep sadness and a sense of relief. I wrote a poem:
Elizabeth A. Gilbert
1912 - 1965
The phone call
just after Christmas
and I was carefully told
that mother had died.
I was only sad:
what had been a slow process for her
was now confirmed.
Today - thirty-one years later -
I came to see her grave.
I came not expecting anything from her
and not knowing what to expect from myself.
For those thirty-one years I have tried
to ignore the life of this one person
who carried me in her womb.
When ignoring didn't work,
disclaiming, dishonoring and disengaging came,
and almost too easily.
I thought maybe I would cry tears of anger
of loss, of loneliness, of despair,
but none of that was there.
She is planted midway between a valley oak
and a lovely spreading willow tree,
each not more than ten paces away.
The simple concrete and granite marker,
I realized, had never been touched
by anyone she had touched.
That changed today:
I passed my hands over its surface
and blew the dust
out of the channels
of the engraved letters that have spoken
her name only to the unhearing ears
They now spoke to me.
No. There was no anger or remorse -
although I did ask forgiveness
for this visit taking so long to happen.
I closed my eyes in the shade of that oak,
and I remembered...
my mother's abundant laugh and energy;
the way she shielded my eyes from the Arizona sun;
the songs and circle of glowing faces
about the campfire.
There are not many memories yet,
but these are the ones that came to me
as I looked at her grave.
You are not abandoned, mother.
I need you and want you as you did me.
I am finally here to learn the remaining lessons
and to remember.
Upon returning home, I wrote my two brothers and my sister a few
words about this experience and enclosed the poem. I expressed
the thought that this cemetery in the Central Valley really
isn't where mother belongs. The response I got from all three of
my siblings showed me that something in their hearts was drawing
them in a similar direction - my visit and my poem had opened
some possibilities that none of us had considered before.
We decided to have her cremated body removed from the cemetery.
We would take them to a place in Oregon where she had grown up,
and where we had spent many summers as a family. This seemed
right and good to all of us. Being the funeral director in the
family, I offered to make the arrangements with the cemetery. I
had no idea of the power that this next experience would hold
for me. I again drove down to where mother was, this time to
bring her home with me. Afterward, I wrote a letter to my niece
describing this experience:
"When I arrived at the cemetery, they had already dug down
to where mother's remains were encased in a cement vault. Two
young guys had done the digging and were taking a little break,
leaning on their shovels.
Everyone was quietly respectful of me when I walked up. The lady
there offered to bring me a cup of coffee. One guy in a tie
commented on the beautiful valley oak quercus lobata and
educated me on their efforts to save them.
It was an interesting perspective for me as a funeral director
to feel the efforts to make me more comfortable sincere, yet
unnecessary. People just need to be allowed to have their
experience, and given the emotional and interpersonal space for
that experience to happen. It doesn't need to be facilitated,
encouraged or stoked.
They were able after a little effort to loose the top of the urn
vault, and lift it off. Mother's cremated remains had been
placed in a simple pine box, and then inside the concrete vault.
When the vault top was lifted off by one of the guys lying on
his belly, arms outstretched into the grave, I could see that
the pine box had deteriorated, and the cremated remains sloughed
out. After the top of the vault was out, the guy carefully
lifted out the flat concrete bottom on which were the old pine
urn and mother's remains. He set them down on the grass next to
the hole. I had brought a container with me for just this
purpose. They all stood around watching me.
Up to now I was pretty removed from the occasion. They were
doing their cemetery duty and I was familiar with it all. But
now, there I was, kneeling in the grass with what was left of my
mother in a little pile before me. I began picking up the ashes
in my hands and placing them in the container I had brought. I
couldn't remember the last time I had touched mother over
thirty-two years ago. Here I was touching her: not a picture or
a memento - I was touching her. These cremated remains became
something different to me now. I have seen thousands of
"sets" of cremated remains in my work, and have had
the intellectual knowing that they had once been a person. But
now my personal experience was that here was my mother.
I had the sense that at this time, this occasion, this place of
awareness, I was touching and holding her more intimately and
closely than I ever had before. Perhaps this intimacy could only
be borne out of the journey of our lives to this time: my life
passing through the crucible of my experience, and her body
being reduced to ashes. Fire does reduce things to their most
One of the fellows brought me a brush and a little scoop, but I
continued to gather mother up in my hands. He offered to help,
but I declined the offer saying that I needed to do this myself.
He shook his head, seeming to realize that his good intention
came more from something stirring in his heart than he realized.
He stepped away a few paces.
When I was done, I asked that the large and quite heavy grave
marker be placed in my car. I also took the vault that had held
mother beneath the earth for thirty-one years, and the decrepit
pine urn. My sister and brothers would want to have an
experience of all this: where she has been all these years,
waiting for a reunion of those who carry her legacy.
As I drove north, I pictured mother sitting next to me she
really was present in the car. I pondered what I would say to
her, what I would want her to know about my life, who I am. I
cried. I realized how much I had missed mother, how much I have
loved her, and how ready I am to let go."
My brother, the one who had made the cremation and burial
arrangements thirty-one years earlier, came to visit me. He knew
I had mother, the grave marker, the urn and the urn vault. He
wanted to see it all. As he looked at the marker with her name
engraved in the plaque, he began to weep. He wanted to wash it.
I got him a bucket of warm water, a brush and a sponge. He knelt
down and began to gently and carefully wash mother's name and
the granite which held it. I could relate to what he was
feeling, but this moment was for him.
We have not yet taken mother to Oregon, but the plans are set.
The four of us will gather on her birthday in June to scatter
her cremated remains. We will have our families with us. I am
taking the time now to consider what words I will say and what
will be most meaningful for myself, my three siblings and our
children and mother. I have the distinct awareness that this
time of unity with my mother will be a significant moment for my
children in knowing a grandmother they have never met.
In my profession,
I hear the word "closure" used frequently. I think
this word reflects an attitude that permeates much of our
culture that following a death something needs to be closed
or brought to a conclusion. In my experience I found that
"opening" is what truly brought the life, death and
influence of my mother into the light of understanding, love and
release. I am not an expert in psychology, but I have come to my
own conclusions about grief: it is not an emotion, it is an
emotional process. In our culture pain is something we avoid,
hence we want "closure," we want it over. Grief is
painful, but avoiding the pain is avoiding the process, which
only keeps a person stuck. Moving through the process
however long that takes brings not closure, but opening.
For better or worse, I am a person that has a history, a legacy,
a heritage. What has been before shows itself in who I am. And
then this is given to my progeny. This experience with my mother
has opened me to an awareness that my life doesn't just begin
and end, but it is a part of a continuum of life and death. I am
now learning to honor who I am now and where I desire to go by
honoring where I have come from. My sincere desire is to
contribute to the lives of those I love most dearly, to make a
difference for them and for the world I live in. I have seen
that "opening" is the only way to do that with both
conscious intent and personal power.
Stephen Gilbert has spent more than 30 years in personal and
professional coaching, griefwork, training, ministry, and
funeral service. He is certified as a Management Effectiveness
Coach, a Griefwork Coach, and is a licensed funeral director. He
works both in corporate settings and with individuals. Through
his coaching, individuals become more effective in critical
areas of life, such as career direction and change, addiction
recovery, creative expression, interpersonal relationships, and
attaining personal and professional goals.
He is well known as a powerful workshop leader if the field of
griefwork. His workshop, called Being With Grief, has help
hundreds of people move through some of the most challenging of
human experiences. He also offers training and workshops care
giving professionals and other that work directly with the
Stephen offers coaching services for personal transformation,
grief process and professional development in either group or