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Death of a Heroine
by Melissa Martin
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A few years past, my grandmother, Hila, passed from her physical body to a place of ethereal bliss. Death came by way of liver cancer. During her last days in the hospital, I welcomed the opportunity to express my love and gratitude. Her passing triggered in-depth reflection of my past spiritual pilgrimage, scrutiny of my present excursion, and contemplation of my future soulful journey. Her death was magnified by the beginning of the war in Iraq. During the same time period, four college students died in an arson house fire not far from my home. Death saturated the atmosphere. Feelings of vulnerability, uncertainty, and helplessness filled my space.

Grieving arrived as emotionally excruciating. However, the traditional rituals of mourning did not appeal to me.

Writing therapy, my usual method for processing joyous and tragic events, was too agonizing to use to put my thoughts and feelings into words. I searched for another way to soothe the pain of my loss and I found it in gardening. Because my grandmother was a lifelong gardener, I spent the entire season visiting greenhouses and planting flowers and vegetables. I planted some of her favorites: lilacs, honeysuckle, morning glories, sunflowers, tomatoes, peppers, zucchinis, and gourds. Memories were triggered each time I pushed the shovel into the soil. Tears and sweat merged together under the sunshine. I delicately placed the young seedlings and sprouts in the fostering dirt. I desperately desired to witness life growing from the earth. My soul felt like it was suffocating. I quit my part-time job so I could spend more time in my garden. Fortunately, I did give myself permission to mourn because as a counselor I know the results of unprocessed grief and how it can stunt personal growth and adjustment.

I spent the summer weeding, watering, and nurturing my plants. Being a college student, I dropped my summer classes so I could watch the plants grow. I needed time to watch the birds and squirrels enjoy the changing seasons. Grandma Hila had resided on a small farm in Appalachia and she treated domesticated and untamed animals with kindness. How I longed to be in her cozy kitchen smelling fresh-baked blackberry cobbler! I wanted one more opportunity to eat her greasy green beans. When my siblings and I would cry as children, my step-grandfather would humorously comment, “Mamaw it’s time to get out the crying cup and catch the tears.” I needed an adult crying cup to catch my tears of sorrow.

Even though I have admired lots of prominent figures in my life, my personal heroine is Mamaw Hila. She accepted the outcasts of society. She raised several foster-care children and made a home for her alcoholic brother and her invalid mother-in-law. Babies and stray animals were welcomed. The bounty of her garden was given to neighbors and strangers. She was kind to both saints and sinners. I am who I am and what I am because of the time and energy she devoted to being my second mother figure. She allowed my siblings and I to play in summer rain showers, catch crawfish in the creek, and swing on grapevines in the woods. Whenever we were alone, I would eagerly ask questions about her life story. Her mother died after childbirth and Hila raised her younger brother while her four older siblings worked in the fields. Her latter days were far better than her former days. Her first husband, an alcoholic and batterer, abused her and their three children. He abandoned the marriage and she never saw him again. Mamaw Hila picked and sold vegetables to support her young family. She remarried a kindly man several years later. I know some of my former caretakers traits were passed down from Mamaw Hila but her independent pioneer spirit resides in me also.

As a mental health practitioner of fifteen years, I have often assisted clients in processing issues of bereavement and grief over the death of family, friends, and acquaintances. Encouraging clients to write letters to deceased loved ones, using the empty chair for processing unsaid words and final good-byes, and other counseling techniques seems to alleviate some suffering while moving them into other dimensions of healing. Several years ago, I taught a college course on the topic of death and dying. Nevertheless, I was not prepared when loss and bereavement visited my psyche, my heart, and my family. I found that I was struggling to find balance through the process.

I considered attending a grief support group but spoken words produced more aching. Eventually, I expressed my sorrow to a friend. She listened, related, and supported. Prayer and meditation became my companions again.

Spring and summer go by. As the flowers bloom, my soul is refreshed. I pick a large bouquet and picture Mamaw Hila smelling the flowers. I gently caress the blossoms. My spirit feels alive again.

It is early autumn and I pick the vegetables from my garden plot. Birds and squirrels devour my sunflower seeds. I hear the sound of beans snapping on Mamaw’s back porch. She growls about the potato bugs. With my eyes closed, I touch her weathered face. After the first frost, the plants show signs of perishing but I know the perennials will grow and bloom again next spring; death is not final. Mamaw Hila is a part of me and she is in me. The spiritual legacy of my grandmother speaks to me and through me. Her unconditional love and foundational faith provide an empyreal haven for my spirit. Grief gently catapults my soul back into the arms of my numinous creator. I change my routine. I spend more time sipping my morning coffee while relaxing in the porch swing. I leisurely watch the cats play. I stroll through the local cemetery and linger over the epitaphs on the headstones; statues of angels and teddy bears decorate children’s graves; war medallions and wreaths decorate the graves of soldiers. I close my eyes and imagine my grandmother in another universe without pain and suffering.

In the middle of November I experience a stirring dream. I visit Mamaw Hila and when I leave she follows me to her door, reaches out and holds my face in her hands, and says “I love you, please come back later.” I honor her request and revisit her in my thoughts and memories. As a bereavement counselor, I know that a new connection with the departed can be developed as a relationship of memory. I am ready to view family videotapes and photographs. I put the crying cup away as I realize the passing of time is a healing poultice.

I return to work and school. I am closer to making meaning out of life’s tragedies and triumphs. What is the meaning of suffering? What is the purpose of life and death? I have opinions, experiences, knowledge, logic, reasoning, and maybe some wisdom, but I continue to search for more answers. As counselors we strive to help clients make meaning out of life’s events; human tragedies, suffering, death of loved ones, and other happenings that alter our equilibrium. We want to fit together pieces of the spirituality puzzle. We search for answers like they were buried treasure.

I too, learned some important lessons from this grief and loss. My newfound understanding for the grieving process of clients is deeply cemented. I know the stages of grief are both circular and linear; future holidays may rekindle various feelings of loss and sadness. Being a professional counselor does not offer immunity from bereavement. Walking in our client’s shoes instills a bond of empathy and understanding that goes beyond textbooks and college degrees. I also learned more about self-care and taking time off from the usual activities without feelings of guilt in order to focus on the mourning process. I reached out and accepted emotional support from others and felt comforted.

Prodigal peace returns to my soul. I smile. I have found the road home in my travel back to wellness and homeostasis. Home is the same, yet different. This experience is interpreted and incorporated into my life script. I am forever changed. Thank you Mamaw Hila.

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Member Comments
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Wesley Hesketh  30 Oct 2011
I read you piece and can relate. I too was a counselor. I dealt with A&D and divorce recovery/separation survival. I can relate to the grief you speak of. Your piece was long but kept my interest all the way through. Very descriptive. I will read other work you do. Thank you for your time. Thank you for reading my poetry. Your feedback is welcomed. Each time I receive it it helps me improve. Thank you again. One thing that makes grief bearable is eternal live. John 3:16 God bless you in your work.


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