Grief agenda, noun:
The inevitable, seemingly relentless course of thought, action, behavior that follows deep loss.
In a profound way for me and my siblings, the world ended for us on March 24th, 2020. I was meeting with students by Zoom, holding virtual office hours discussing a nursing students’ math requirement for pharmacology, and I received a text, and then a phone call. First my sister texting: can you take a call? Second, my mother’s caregiver phoning with attending paramedics. My magnificent mom: singer, speaker, pianist, poet, international humanitarian agency director (Ukrainian Children’s Christian Fund) and girl-who-skipped-grade-four, was found unresponsive. Olga OliviaBalabanov Lapka had quietly slipped into eternity just at the beginning of the Covid pandemic lockdown, therefore foiling any attempts we could make to have a public Celebration of Life. It was perfectly done—as my mom would have graciously accepted the gathering of friends from across five or more nations, but, deep introvert that she was and hid so well, I think she probably preferred the simple family and close friends send-off we had, rich in prayers and steeped in love, in the spring sunlight, braced by a brisk breeze, gathered where her body would rest beside my dad’s.
We are still reeling, as you can imagine. Although she was 93 years old and beginning to take more frequent cat naps throughout the day, our mom was still busy in her large home office on her computer, writing receipts for charitable donations to the mission she and my dad had founded, jotting down thoughts for bulletin items, and emailing UCCF workers in the Ukraine and Germany. In her off time, Mom avidly read, wrote notes, kept up on news (TV and her daily Vancouver Sun paper), cared for her two cats, Pepsi and Honey, and brought us kids all up to speed on both current events and the antics of the racoon family that routinely invaded her back yard. She had, only a very few months earlier, stopped independently driving to attend Sunday morning services at her beloved Gospel Hall in Richmond.
We humans were not the only ones whose lives were instantly altered. Mom's cats were heart broken. Mom had raised these two from tiny kittens, adopted them where they had been destined to live out notoriously short lives as near-feral barn cats. Honey and Pepsi were brother and sister, both tabbies, but Honey was orange tabby and Pepsi was a dark grey tabby. They had both grown into stately, beautiful companions with a streak of mischievous fun. Both cats were highly bonded to my mom, but Honey in particular never left her side in the few months leading up to my mom’s passing. So much so, that my sister, another ‘cat lady,’ had a thought cross her mind that Honey might be signaling something that she did not want to acknowledge—that Mom was getting ready to leave this earth. Notoriously shy and disappearing when someone new entered the house, Honey remained firmly seated beside Mom while the paramedics worked on her and stayed beside her until the funeral home attendants carried her body away. Pepsi wailed the entire night we were there, in what can only be described as a deep grieving dirge.
Mom had asked me to be the cat’s ‘god mother,’ so, after our small service, Honey and Pepsi were loaded into their traveling crates and made the journey to Vancouver Island to our small farm in the Alberni Valley. We tucked them into our guest room turned cat room, filling it with their own familiar beds, dishes, toys, litter trays and even hung my mom’s wall clock with the bird song on the hour on the wall and placed a couple of pairs of my mom’s personal items in the room. Our own king-of-the-mountain Siamese cat, Gabe, peeked in with interest as we prepared the room for our two newcomers. We always described Gabe as a lover not a fighter as he always kept to himself and out of any neighborhood cat drama. He also, at an early age, made friends with a young street rat that he tried to convince us to allow in our home. We never saw him with any ‘trophies’ thereafter; indeed, we had never known Gabe to lift his paw to anything but friendly fun. I had high hopes that the cat ‘cousins’ would integrate peaceably.
I did not count on the scope of Honey and Pepsi’s grief, nor on the depth of Gabe’s cherished identity as ‘only cat.’ Gabe had grown up in a household of pairs: two of us and two Dalmatian dog-sisters. The horses, goats, and chickens were family groups too, but Gabe stood alone. And he liked it that way.
After 10 days in isolation from the rest of the animals, we began to leave the guestroom door ajar in the evening to allow the cats an opportunity to explore the rest of the house while the other animals were confined to another part of the house. After a couple of weeks of this, we began allowing an opportunity for paths to cross in the evening when we were in the house. It didn’t go well. Maggie, our Dalmatian was fine—she had a vague interest in the new smells but was politely uninterested otherwise. Gabe and Pepsi did a weird air-boxing routine that ended up with Pepsi running up the living room drapes to perch on the curtain rod as if it were the crow’s nest of a pirate ship. And down he would not come, even after Gabe was hustled off to the other part of the house. After nearly three days, he was persuaded to come down, spitting and kicking, and he rushed to the guestroom to fill up on food and water and ‘unload’ as it were. Soon, we saw him sleeping on our bed and seemingly unconcerned, purring a greeting to me. The crow’s nest episode was a turning point for him. Pepsi, newly christened Parry from his habit of answering everything by parrying back a cat remark, was suddenly becoming one of the family.
Honey remained oblivious to everything and seemed only concerned with either hiding under the bed or seeking a way out of the house. Honey had never made any attempt to connect with us during those 10 days enclosed in the guestroom or the weeks of evenings in the house while we quietly sat by or slept in our bed, door open. She never looked at us even while eating her meals. She refused to join in and play or explore with a cat’s curiosity this new house with strange farm smells and clucking crowing chickens just outside the window. She never ran from Gabe nor approached him. She simply avoided any contact. We would only see her in a relentless, silent search for an open door or window. Eventually, she would find one.
One morning, Honey was gone. Her grief agenda was to go. Never connect, never look back. Somehow, her brother Pepsi, had made a different choice. His grief agenda was to be family, be loved and connected to our household, the farm, us. The goodbye between this brother and sister was complete and soundless. Pepsi stayed; Honey left. We live in a rural area with neighbors that look out for each other and are in a small valley of animal lovers. We text and call each other if someone’s animal is out or possibly in trouble, and we’ve been known to leave our beds in the middle of the night to help corral someone’s cows or horses who have wandered out of the safety of their fields. No one has seen Honey. It is summer, and there is lots to eat and drink in the fields and barns and sheds to shelter within. She may travel, need time and space, and maybe we will see her again toward fall. Or, she may have found another older soul to move in with and companion; one whose essence is not as painfully similar to mine, but one who needs her. My sister prefers to think the latter.
Grief agendas are powerful forces. I’ve watched as my brother has become more connected to family, my older sister returning to essentials, sharing grace and gratitude, and my younger sister again embrace composing, singing and recording of music, so much a part of mom’s life. For myself, writing has demanded I give it more time; words and other worlds are another legacy-remembrance of my mom who encouraged and edited all my fiction from book one and before.
When we lose someone beloved, the indelible mark we feel is life-altering. Grief agendas are written from a place within us that is not necessarily connected to our pre-frontal cortex and executive function. Grief agendas do not seem to be a choice and have more in common with a drive or reaction, in that we find ourselves in a different place than we were before the split second of grief impacted us. Grief agendas are not decisions made to improve our lives to honor the passing of someone admired, rather they are the aftermath of lightning bolt-grief that has seemingly burned us to the ground-soul of who we were. What we are left with is the cobbling together of meaning and memory on the art board of this raw, razed self.
In a way, a grief agenda is the final, terrible gift given to us upon the departure of our loved one. Perhaps that is why we want to hold onto grief so desperately. It is the last connection that has been physically drawn on the cognitive heart of our person. To lose grief is to lose that immediate last connection. We fear the loss of the loss, because we fear a void.
If we consciously allow ourselves to be carried by our grief agenda, we learn that we are not left with nothingness. Indeed, we are left with the germinating seeds of what will grow after our catastrophic loss. Like the green after a brush fire, saplings emerge. Painfully, perhaps; unplanned, certainly. And here is where, I think, our choice returns to us. Which saplings will we prune, bolster, nurture? I find, that as I write and speak, I am a bit braver, a bit clearer, and a whole lot more heart- and head-strong about what I will write about. I am also more ruthless about the time I have to accomplish what I must. Legacy work has become essential work.
Grief agendas ruthlessly pare out the nonessential. In grief lies the gift of clarity, of what is meaningful, what stands the test of time, is purpose-filled, core-honest, but not self-gratuitous.
I suppose, in writing the eulogy of others we learn to listen for the ring of truth, to recognize her, the core-gift of the person we loved. We need to uncover the nugget, reach the diamond depth of understanding her astonishing uniqueness. We are distressed when we hear a tribute that feels false, that piles platitudes like straw that obscures rather than clarifies this person-gift to us. Truth, like Charn’s time-waking end-of-days bell in the Narnian chronicles, really does bring to finality our loss, but in doing so, truth set us free to resonate with others and appreciate the bitter-sweet present moment where time flowed into eternity. In writing, and listening to our beloved’s life story, we learn what stands the test of time; purpose lived that may have appeared mundane but was foundational gold. We are given the choice to groom, bend, prune the saplings freshly rooted in our own lives.
Grief agendas are in one sense mysterious and in another sense blazingly obvious. It is easy in the normal slippage of days where workdays merge and weekends are either hectic or passed in stuporous recovery mode, to overlook even the blazingly obvious grief agenda. Reflecting, remembering, reminiscing, all help us to recognize our individual agenda, or direction, that our heart-core has written. When we succumb to and follow our own grief agenda, what we find is that a core-purpose of our beloved was in fact to birth, shape, and prepare us for our own life-work.
That is the agape, or God-like love that is shared between souls; love that is lived action rather than simply shared emotion. Rarely a huge event, rather it is the living side-by-side, sharing of time and stories, walking and working alongside, struggling through everyday fortunes and misadventures. Whether transparent exchanges of communication and love are remembered or obscure fits and starts of trying and failing are more readily recalled, as proverbs state, “iron sharpens iron” and “faithful are the wounds of a friend.”
I believe that there is a healing of the raw brokenness that grief imparts by faithfully following grief’s agenda. I think that it begins with accepting the legacy gift that is ourselves.
I took a break from writing to go cut thistles that have come up in our garden yard with my scythe. (Yes, the odd mental image of the grim reaper did pop into my mind, as I ruminated over this piece!) Many of the thistles had reached that pretty stage of soft purple flowers just unfolding. My love of the natural beauty of wildflowers and support for honeybees and hummingbirds always compete with my pragmatic side in these moments. But, of course, the need to lop these picturesque blooms is so that they will not be pollinated and propagate more thistles. My scythe did its work and my garden has survived this season’s thistle invasion. I watched as the honeybees simply shifted their attention to the many squash, bean, and pea blossoms—a very good result! I suppose that our choice to cultivate or cut down ‘stuff’ that piles into our days is often as simple as scything the thistles was for me this morning; legacy work and “iron sharpening iron” living is generally about the small choices we make that fill the minutes of our days.
As I was gardening, I noticed that Mom’s Pepsi, now our Parry, had come out to meditatively watch as I worked. He was commenting every once in awhile as this cat is known to do. I’m guessing it was the first time he had seen someone scything thistles, but he was not shy about offering suggestions. I glanced at those big grey-green eyes and saw curiosity, connection, cautious concern regarding evading a swinging arc of thistle plants flying through the air. I also saw a calm trust that all would be well even in this unprovoked battle with foliage. All will be well.
Grief agendas, painful as they are, hold a unique wisdom. Like an ocean tide, they will recede, leaving new insights and fresh outlooks and an open shore swept clean. To use my garden as an example, the removal of painful thistles allows my choice of seedlings to grow unfettered and my fingers and toes the ability to do their work ‘ouchlessly’ when I pick my favorite Scallopini squashes and sugar snap peas.
The loss of our mother means that the world is forever changed. My everyday routine somehow feels unfamiliar and I still mentally reach for the phone to share a moment with her several times a day. My footsteps seem to echo down a lonelier road when I realize that I can never bounce ideas off her again or get her editing input on any future draft manuscripts. My loss is real, and my grief agenda has spun me into deeper reflection, more concentrated writing times, and a more purposeful turning of pages to read stories and writing that feed my soul. I find myself pouring over small notes I find in her handwriting. Yes, there is loneliness, but not that of alone-ness, rather of recognizing and re-recognizing the cataclysmic void that is left by her leaving this plane of existence. In a truer sense, my siblings and I walk forward united in the host of gifts we have received from Mom, my dad, my aunts, uncles, cousins who have left us early. From all these precious ones, and Mom in particular, we have been gifted with a love of learning and a frank curiosity about life, an appreciation of sense and a delight in nonsense, abundant and easy laughter and the joyful sharing of each other, music and story. These gifts, carefully tended and abundantly cultivated, may indeed grow into our own legacy gifts that flow to others on their respective journeys.
Not every grief agenda leads to the same place—at least within a similar timeline. Somewhere, an orange tabby cat makes her way along a solitary path while her brother rests curled up beside me. Grief agendas are rough and raw, painful and precious. Above all, they invoke a pause that allows us to have a forthright encounter with our own core-essentials. Yes, the beloved person-shaped void remains; but the beautiful and growing gifts sown over a lifetime of authentic living continue to shine and bless us daily.