The precariousness of living is breathtaking, isn’t it?
A friend from high school loses her five-year-old in a tragic accident. A former love dies suddenly at 43. A previous coworker passes without warning. Yet another friend’s baby dies after a long and difficult illness. All of these deaths leave behind mothers and fathers who are now living in the upside down world where a parent survives their child and not the other way around.
I use leave in the present tense on purpose because when does the leaving begin and end? These losses, I’m sure, will continue to ripple through their lives. Death continues to ripple through life.
It feels strange to grieve in this disconnected way — disconnected not just through social media but through space and time.
How do you grieve the death of a former lover, gone too soon from this life, someone whose loss you already felt after the explosive end of your brief, yet profound relationship?
How do you grieve the often unhappy coworker with whom you often argued, but somehow you also knew that you deeply respected each other?
How do you grieve the young children of two friends to whom you were never super close, but you’re connected through community and social media, where you’ve watched them get married and move and start new jobs and have children and then lose those children?
It’s akin to the pangs of sadness and horror I feel when I read stories of people — strangers to me — in China drowning in flash floods or photos of the ocean on fire after an underwater pipeline explodes. I’m connected through shared humanity and being part of this earth, yet not quite close enough to make the grief make logical sense to me. Then again, is empathy always — or ever — meant to be logical?
When I heard the news that my past love had died, I found myself praying the Hail Mary. As a kid of evangelical Christians, I had never learned this prayer until a couple months ago when a friend took me a feast day for Our Lady of Woodstock. We ate, we mingled, and as the sun began to set behind the trees, prayed a full rosary — 150 repetitions of the prayer with a few Our Fathers and some other stuff thrown in there that I had never heard before. The low hum of thirty voices sweetly petitioning the Mother brought me into a warm, meditative state. Yet, at the end of the event, I wasn’t exactly a convert. I just thought it was a cool spiritual practice that I might use some time if I felt so moved.
Much to my surprise, that moment came when I was sitting on the shore of Lake Champlain trying to integrate the news that this ex of mine had died unexpectedly. I didn’t know why I felt so affected by it. I hadn’t been in contact with him for a couple of years, save for a couple of odd — and I do mean odd — Facebook messages he had sent me, including a video of a woman claiming that COVID-19 was just a hoax. I had long gone through the process of healing from our intense and short-lived connection and no longer felt any anger toward him.
Yet, I felt sad for him going too soon. I wondered if he had gotten to experience relationship in the way I knew he wanted. I felt sad for his family. He had put them through a lot — teen pregnancy, addiction, rehab. I thought of his mother in particular. How does he fit into her story?
I didn’t know what to do or how to feel as I thought about his exit from this earthly plane. The words, “Hail Mary, full of grace,” seemed to arise out of nowhere. I didn’t even have a rosary. I began to quietly repeat the prayer to myself, not really knowing why. Maybe I felt that I was praying for his soul, for some assistance in helping his soul transition, whatever that means.
But mostly, I suppose, I was asking for presence. That’s what this prayer is, isn’t it? Just like, Mom, I’m feeling all this stuff and I don’t know what to do, I hardly even know what to ask for. Will you just be with me?
A few nights later, I read the news that a friend’s toddler had died after a few difficult months in the hospital. I wasn’t terribly close to this friend, but over the last few years, I had seen the photos of a wedding, a new house, a baby, another baby — the one who didn’t even reach her second birthday. As I scrolled through pics of this precious little girl, I began to weep and again found myself praying.
I felt the energy of death in those words. I felt the mothering. I felt my friend and how she had carried this child for nine months, this baby that was a part of her and part of her world for far too little time. How my friend was like Mother Mary, losing a child too soon.
I’ve still been praying the Hail Mary, still not totally sure why. Maybe it’s the wildfires raging, maybe it’s the Delta variant, maybe it’s the fact that police brutality is occurring at the same level as it was last year. The thing about praying to Mother Mary is that it’s not about looking for answers — how far will those go in the senselessness of this time? — it’s wanting someone, or something, to simply be with you.
I’m reminded of one of the gorgeous and heartbreaking prayers to Mary by Mirabai Starr from her book Mother of God, Similar to Fire. (Starr also lost a child and writes about the loss in her memoir, Caravan of Despair.)
Nuestra Señora de los Dolores
Mother of suffering,
You carry the grief of the whole world
In your boundless, shattered heart.
Please, carry mine.
I know that the broken-open container
Of your Mother’s Heart
Has room for us all:
For the women of Iraq and Rwanda,
Afghanistan and Bosnia,
Darfur and Burma,
Palestine and Israel,
Whose innocent children are sacrificed every day
As victims of these senseless wars;
For parents in Los Angeles and Albuquerque,
London and Buenos Aires,
Whose sons and daughters are killed in sudden car wrecks,
Or die of lingering cancers,
Or wrestle with the demons of addiction,
Or languish in prison systems
Specially designed to breed violence and hatred.
Your own sorrow has rendered you invincible, Mother.
I cannot bear these losses alone.
Please share them with me.
Hail Mary, full of grace
The Lord is with thee
Blessed art thou among women
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb
Holy Mary, mother of God
Pray for us now, and in the hour of our death