Regret and DenialFor my life is spent with grief and my years with sighing.
My mother! She was my personal possession. I would never have another mother--only one biological mother per lifetime--and mine was gone, suddenly, at the age of fifty-six, the result of a medical mishap. She had gone into the hospital for the removal of a small growth on her gum, so that her dentures would fit properly. Yet, for reasons unknown, she went into cardiac arrest and lay in a coma for nine days.
From Washington, D.C., where I was living at the time, I rushed to her bedside in Philadelphia and stayed there around the clock, praying for a miracle of healing and the restoration of health. And while I prayed, I also reflected on the years following the death of my grandmother, during which the relationship between my mother and me had been so strained.
My mother, Theresa, had been a young widow with two little girls to raise on her own when my grandmother insisted that we come to live with her. At that point, Grandmother took total charge and control of our lives. My mother was her only child and she looked upon all three of us as "her girls." As a result, my mother had always felt she'd been denied the opportunity to raise her daughters as she saw fit, and my grandmother, on her part, had always felt that her daughter lacked what we now call "parenting skills." Grandmother provided us with a wonderful lifestyle and never begrudged us anything. However, she was disappointed that my mother chose not to be involved in the businesses she had established--her beauty school and rental properties. I, on the other hand, was in awe of all my grandmother did, and I became her little partner. She was my best friend and my playmate. I was with her constantly, and my mother knew enough not to interfere with our special relationship and bond.
Now, while maintaining my bedside vigil, I thought about our past lack of appreciation for each other's individuality. I had wanted my mother to be like my grandmother, who was strong and assertive and who transformed the impossible dream for an African American woman into a vision of reality. She was successful in business and had a passion for motivating others to chart their own life's course on the path of excellence. She refused to accept limitations based on gender or race, and she willingly accepted being misunderstood and misjudged as the price she had to pay for her success. My grandmother was generous to a fault and never complained, even when she was taken advantage of, because she believed strongly that if your heart is in the right place, the giver is never the loser.
My mother was completely different. Soft-spoken, meek, and humorous, she held no high aspirations for her life. "Just live and let live" was her motto. She enjoyed her friends and the things they did together--weekly card games, going to weekend dances, and simply having good, clean fun. And she never really understood the lasting impact my grandmother had made on my life. She didn't know about the countless conversations we'd had, during which my grandmother had encouraged me to accept life's challenge to exceed society's expectations and the limitations it placed on Negro women. Grandmother never rewarded me for being on the honor roll because my achievement was no more than she'd expected, yet she was proud of me and enjoyed boasting about my grades and school honors to anyone who would listen.
At an early age, I felt the call to be a minister. I wanted to be an articulate female proclaimer in ministry. My mother was appalled by this choice, but my grandmother was thrilled for me. She prayed with me and gave me guidance, encouragement, and support. She also tried to prepare me for the obstacles I'd face if I pursued this calling, and insisted that I get as much education as possible. She told me I could succeed at my chosen vocation even in a male-dominated field. With her encouragement, understanding, and unconditional love, I was able to endure rejection and ridicule and become a pioneer in the field for African American women, gaining respect, acceptance, and national recognition within the religious community.
After college, I married a career military officer several years my senior, and my mother loved him dearly. She saw security and stability for me in this marriage. On Valentine's Day, 1964, our beautiful son, Lenord, was born, and becoming a "nana" changed my mother's life as she strove to be the best nana in the world.
My marriage ended when my son was seventeen months old, and that was when my mother truly became my mother in every sense of the word. For the first time, we were able to talk openly and gain insight into each other's lives, dreams and goals, successes and failures. I cried when she told me how proud she was of my accomplishments and how much she admired me for pursuing my academic and ministerial goals.
So now, while maintaining my vigil at her bedside, I prayed, I cried, and I talked to her incessantly. I begged her to open her eyes, wiggle a toe, make a sound, but she never responded. At 3:05 a.m. on November 19, 1967, she died.
Regret has many faces and many meanings. Those who have lost a loved one may regret acts left unperformed or words unspoken. We may regret the loss to ourselves of someone who loved and supported us unconditionally. And our friends and relatives may regret that we have been so saddened and are suffering such a loss. It is an emotion involving sorrow and remorse, and one that often demands some act of penitence.
My own regrets when my mother died were too numerous to list here. I began by regretting not having taken trips with her, not exchanging advice about things that were important to each of us. I felt deep sorrow and painful remorse.
Our act of penitence is often carried out as some form of ongoing after-death apology. For example, we African Americans are known to be extremely vocal at funerals, frequently moaning, "I'm sorry" and "Please forgive me." As a form of penitence, some people begin to perform acts they know would have pleased the departed. They might start to attend church regularly (at least for a while), return to school, or participate in family activities--all to make up for not having done these things while the deceased was alive. In the same way, others might give up behaviors they know displeased their loved one. Either way, the mourner may derive a small sense of comfort from believing that the departed would be pleased or proud of his or her effort to make up and be forgiven for past conduct.
Often we hear grievers lament, "If I had only known"--which means, of course, they really did know--of deeds left undone and acts of kindness they could have bestowed upon the deceased. Certainly that was true in my case.
THE MANNER or cause of our loved one's death can sometimes delay our regret. In the case of a severe and prolonged illness, for example, we might first feel relief, followed by regret. But the manner of death--alone, after prolonged suffering, or as the result of an accident or violent crime--can also be a cause of regret, as can the age of the deceased. Our regret is always that much greater when someone dies young or in the prime of life. But, life is a gift and death is a given. How and when we die is but a small part of the mystery of life, known only to the Creator, the giver of life, and we must, therefore, learn to live through the "could have/should have" phase of mourning and move on to the realization that there is no way to undo or redo the past. All we can do is forgive ourselves, adopt a new attitude about life in general, and begin to cherish each day as a new beginning.
IN GROUP therapy sessions, many people confess that what they really regret is that they no longer have their loved one physically available to them. Simply put, just knowing and accepting the reality that the deceased is no longer "there for me," is the one regret they find most difficult to overcome. In this sense, their regret is actually for themselves rather than for the deceased.
This is particularly true for African Americans, as we have always drawn strength from close family ties and deep, established relationships. Perhaps because of racism and other social divisions, we have looked within the circle of family and special friends for our main source of strength and security. We habitually pledge to "always be there" for someone we love. Even the lyrics of a popular song recorded in the 1960s by The Four Tops have led us to believe that "If ever you need me, I'll be there," and often we take that pledge literally, which makes it all the harder for us to accept the fact that when a loved one dies neither we nor the deceased can continue to keep that promise. And the broken pledge can also be a two-edged sword, because if someone has vowed to "always be there" for us, we in turn may come to feel that he or she is our possession--my husband, my wife, my baby, my home girl, my main man, my woman. If we interpret that to mean "mine and mine alone," the loss can leave a permanent, unfillable void.
ONE OF the strengths of African American culture is that we can always find solace in a song, scripture, or an old saying handed down to us by elders who have weathered similar personal storms. Before there were support groups, therapy, and counseling, we gained strength and healing from songs. And these simple chants still provide temporary comfort and postpone the need for an immediate answer to our questions. "Why and why now?" is the question answered in the song "We'll Understand It Better By and By," while the lament "How am I going to make it?" finds a response in the song "God Will Take Care of You." In these and other verses, we are admonished to accept the will of God because He makes no mistakes, and, at the same time, we are assured that "He will be a mother for the motherless, a father for the fatherless, and a friend that will stick closer than a brother"--words that are intended to relieve us of feeling any regret for the loss.
SOOTHING WORDS of Old Testament scripture can almost always be found in Psalm 23, "The Lord Is My Shepherd," which reassures us that "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me . . ." God, the psalm tells us, will be with the griever in this dark hour, and He will also accompany the deceased on his journey of passage from life to death.
The New Testament scripture of comfort is usually John 14, verses 1 to 3, which promise grievers and mourners that the departed is going to a better place where he will reside with God until such time as they are all reunited on the other side:
Let not your Heart be troubled,
Ye believe in God, believe also in Me,
In my Father's house are many mansions,
If it were not so, I would have told you,
I go to prepare a place for you, that where
I am, there ye may be also.
ONCE THE songs are sung and the scripture read, however, regret for the loss of a loved one still remains with the griever, and too often, in our effort to postpone the inevitable feeling of emptiness, we resort to denial as a way of dealing with our regret.
In our community, both regret and denial are often expressed through elaborate funerals and floral displays, expensive caskets, numerous limos, even color-coordinated outfits for the immediate family. Such extravagances are intended as statements of love and esteem for the deceased, as if he or she were aware of the display (or the extent of the family's grief).
In recent years, African American culture has accepted a redefinition of death as no longer permanent and final, but rather a temporary absence or transformation of the deceased into a spiritual being who has ongoing knowledge of earthly affairs. Our people have a long history of wanting to communicate with the dead. Often it is out of simple curiosity, or because they need to know where the deceased is in the afterworld. Still others seek confirmation that their loved one is happy on the "other side," enjoying the fellowship of others who passed before him. And finally, there are those who desperately seek direction for their own lives through communication with the dead.
This is a delicate stage of grieving, when the griever must use caution in order to avoid being taken advantage of by those who prey upon and profit from other people's frantic grief. In the film Ghost, Whoopi Goldberg portrayed a woman who had the ability to communicate with the dead, and in real life many people invest thousands of dollars in this kind of pursuit.
One of my favorite stories brings into sharp if humorous focus the absurdity of this kind of denial. A woman whose neighbor had died arrived at the funeral with a crock of chicken soup. Some of her fellow mourners thought she was demented, while others just thought her behavior was downright embarrassing. But, when reminded that she was, in fact, at a funeral, the woman replied, "If she can see and smell those flowers, she can eat this soup."
Amusing as this story may be, it accurately reflects the fact that many African Americans do enter a state of denial, partly as a way to assuage their regret and partly just to deny the inevitable reality of death. A much-quoted verse from a poem by Helen Steiner Rice validates this sentiment when it says "they are just away," implying that they may some day return. But describing death as an unexplained or temporary absence only serves to reinforce unhealthy denial of the truth.
FOR AFRICAN Americans, this tendency toward denial is often encouraged by the abundance of food, fun, and fellowship that has always provided an opportunity for escape and retreat from reality during the grieving period.
In contrast with other ethnic or religious groups--such as those of the Jewish faith, who traditionally bury their dead within twenty-four hours--African Americans often schedule their funerals for the convenience of relatives or loved ones who must travel long distances to attend, which means that there can be a lapse of anywhere from five to eight days between the death and the burial. In the interim, food and more food is carried to the family home as more and more people arrive. Old photographs might be brought out and passed around, generating laughter and wistful smiles. And you can bet that someone will have a "do you remember" or a "how about the time" story that will inevitably be subject to correction by others who recall the incident differently.
Excerpted from The End Is Just the Beginning by Arlene Churn. Copyright © 2003 by Arlene Churn. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.