99..100..101. I counted each sympathy card in the pile on the floor of my small home office, some opened, some still sealed. I received these cards from kind and thoughtful people after the passing of each of my parents four days apart in mid-January 2013. When the cards first started to arrive, I opened each one, freezing each time the card said something about happy memories or beloved father and mother. No one who wrote the cards was aware of the strained relationship I had with my parents.
With their passing I was plunged into emotional turmoil, merely going through the motions of everyday life for many months. Kind remarks from people at their services and on cards made me confused, angry, and eventually numb. I wanted to grab these friends by the shoulders and tell them the truth. My parents, who were deeply admired by many and were mentors to countless teenagers and college students, had deprived me of love and care and hurt me, making me feel invisible and unsafe in my own home.
I had no voice to tell the truth. I stood numbly shaking people’s hands and receiving hugs.
Verses on many sympathy cards imply loving relationships. I quit opening the cards toward the end of January because I couldn’t tolerate the words. Reading a card with a loving sentiment was like hammering a nail into the middle of my heart.
Not knowing how to process what happened, I googled “How to Grieve Abusive Parents,” and found nothing helpful on the internet. I met with a friend at the church I attend who was often consulted on grief. He listened attentively to my story, only to say, “Your grief is complicated.”
The counselor I was seeing at the time did not know how to help me. I realize grief has to be expressed with words and emotions out in the open in order to have something to work with in a professional setting. But I was like a frozen statue. I was looking for a special set of steps, unique to my situation, that I could walk through to find relief.
At any funeral home visitations I had ever attended, anyone I knew who had lost a mother or father was sad, crying, clinging to items the parent had owned, putting together scrapbooks of family photographs and recalling pleasant, happy moments together. I wanted nothing to do with any of my parents’ material items. I felt I had nothing positive to remember. My brother who describes his childhood as happy and loving willingly packed boxes from their apartment to take home with him.
By early June, six months after their passing, I found strength to open all of the sympathy cards. I finally realized the cards were not about my parents, but for me. The love expressed in handwritten notes was sincere and meant to bring comfort to a grieving daughter. Being able to receive love from well-meaning people who sent cards was a large hurdle for me to overcome along this unusual path of grief.
Interacting with the cards in creative ways helped me find peace. The people who sent the cards to express their sympathy had no idea they were providing me with material to work through the complicated grief I was experiencing.
First, my writing coach at the time introduced me to the concept of “found poems.” A found poem is created by taking words, phrases or sentences from books, magazines or other sources and putting them together in lines. I used my exacto knife and cut out phrases from the cards to which I could relate such as, “Jesus holds your hand,” or “God brings comfort.” I made several found poems using phrases taken from the cards.
Here is one:
“Someone will keep your troubled heart,
Holding it close, with peace coming, during a difficult time.
Words are inadequate to express concern and sympathy
When deepest comfort is needed for the heart.
Jesus reminds us, “I give you my peace. Let not your heart be troubled.”
Next, I wrote thank you notes to the people who sent cards. I looked at illustrations on the front of the card, noting colors and designs. Opening the card, I read the verse or personal note and again looked for colors and objects. My thank you notes often made reference to the colors on the card and how a particular color affected me. For example, I wrote to one individual, “The blue border on your card brought me peace. I think of peace when I see the color blue.”
Occasionally, I made a comment on my relationship to the sender. “I remember the fun we had with your family going to the swimming pool when I was in seventh grade,” I wrote to my parent’s close friends in the neighborhood where I lived from sixth grade through college.
I wrote twenty letters, but didn’t send them. I wasn’t sure about the appropriateness of sending a thank you note for a sympathy card. I concluded that the exercise was merely for me, a way to loosen feelings buried deep within, unexpressed feelings toward my parents who were now gone and couldn’t hurt me or anyone else anymore.
Over a year later, in April 2014, during my private art lesson, I mentioned the struggle I was having dealing with my parent’s passing, especially not having language to process my inner turmoil. I had no words, except the found poems I wrote from the sympathy cards, and those words weren’t fully mine.
My teacher, a kind and compassionate Seventh Day Adventist, asked, “Have you ever made paper?”
“No,” I replied, but I trusted this young woman’s ideas and listened while she explained the simple, but time consuming task of making paper.
Then she gently suggested, “Maybe when you are ready, you can tear the cards into small pieces and I can show you how to make paper from them.”
I went home and looked at the cards still resting on the floor of my office. Some of the cards were intact, others sliced open by my exacto tool for found poems.
I gathered a few cards, sat on the floor and started tearing. My mind recalled the day when my brother called Friday morning, January 11, telling me my father died during the night from aspiration pneumonia. He had been hospitalized in early December, and by Christmas he joined my mother at the Columbus, Ohio nursing home where she had lived for two years.
My husband, Mike, and I left for Columbus on Monday afternoon. Wanting to minimize contact with my father even in death, I chose not to attend the visitation at the funeral home Monday evening. I didn’t know what to expect at a funeral for someone I didn’t like. I was so confused thinking I should be sad. Friends whose fathers died were sad. I didn’t know how I felt.
The service was the next morning at the Greek Orthodox Church. On the way to the church, Mike and I decided to stop by the nursing home where my mother was receiving extended care. When we got to the facility, I asked for a chaplain at the front desk. I needed spiritual support for what I was about to face.
Walking down the wide halls and around a few corners, I reviewed the nature of the relationship I shared with my parents. My childhood and adolescence were not happy. Trying to sort out the various emotions surfacing left me feeling numb and confused.
We last visited my mother in July when we had hoped to take her on a walk outside in her wheelchair. Unfortunately, long-standing dementia had made her unresponsive and we left disappointed.
As we entered her room before the funeral, she was thrashing from side to side in bed, very agitated. The nurse standing nearby said she would get medication to calm my mother.
The chaplain arrived and introduced himself. I sat next to my ninety-year-old mother’s bed. Her eyes were closed tightly. I put my hand on her shoulder, and spoke into her left ear, knowing hearing is the last sense to leave a dying person. I asked God for words to say to a woman who had not known how to show love to me and failed to protect me from harm.
I quietly talked to her, telling her it was ok to go, to be with her mother, her two sisters, brother, father, and husband. I tried to get into my mother’s grieving seven-year-old-heart from the loss of her mother to diphtheria, articulating what she never was able to put into words. Her grief had morphed and expressed itself in her actions as an abusive, controlling mother. I told her she would be able to see her mother and spend eternity with her. Her mother would give her as many hugs as she wanted, something she missed growing up. She and her mother would live together side by side forever.
When the nurse returned prepared to give my mother a shot, I told her to wait. During the time I spent talking, my mother’s body became calm and relaxed. God gave me the strength to show care to my mother during what would be the final hours of her life.
I asked the chaplain to say a prayer before we left for my father’s funeral. When Mike and I walked out the door of my mother’s room, the chaplain, having seen how I had interacted with my mother, said,” You must have come from a loving family.” I wanted to tell him the truth, but I had no energy. We had to get to the church, and my mother’s nursing home room was not the place to explain my life story.
Reflecting on his words as we got to our car, I realized how they had made my sadness worse. I felt he should have been more hesitant to make a quick assessment on the nature of a person’s relationship with a parent based on an end-of-life observation. I felt he should have kept his impressions to himself so I could grieve without more complications. But, as I reflected, I thought back on how quickly I had sometimes made mental assessments about people as I observed their interaction with siblings, parents, family members, and friends in various circumstances. Being married to a pastor had brought many opportunities for me to be around others in times of trial, perhaps more than the average person. I made a mental note to apply caution and restraint in the future, not to be hasty in my thoughts, never assuming family dynamics, and most importantly to keep my observations to myself.
Following my father’s funeral, a steady stream of people came to tell me how much he was loved by students and colleagues where he taught at a Big Ten School. When I could bear no more, I told Mike it was time to leave. On the way home, we stopped to give my mother the flag from my father’s casket, typically given to the surviving widow. She was as calm as when we left, her eyes closed tightly. I tucked the triangularly-folded flag under her stiff arm and described the military ceremony a few hours ago, kissed her forehead, and forced out the words, “I love you.”
About two hours into our trip home, my brother called to say my mother had died.
When we got home, Mike went to the church for a few hours to work. We took care of some business on Wednesday and headed back to Columbus on Thursday. Two deaths and two funerals in four days. I was exhausted emotionally and physically.
Sitting on the floor with a growing pile of tiny paper pieces on one side and a few last cards in front of me, I didn’t realize how quickly the cards took me back to those horrible seven days in mid-January. I didn’t feel as overwhelmed or angry as I did during the weeks following their funerals. Although I didn’t feel peace, maybe I was making progress going through the uncharted territory of complicated grief, by interacting with the cards.
When I walked up the steps of my art teacher’s quaint house, holding my shoebox of torn sympathy cards, I was curious about our project. The artist greeted me at the door with a smile. “Are you ready to make paper?”
I stepped into the living room and saw three tables, one for each stage. The first table had a large tub of warm water. “Dump the torn pieces into the tub. The paper has to soak and get soggy.”
I stood next to the tub watching the paper gradually absorb the water. At the same time, I felt God softening my heart, a feeling I had not experienced for many months. I was like the paper, beginning a transformation.
Next, we dipped a sheet mold (window screen nailed to a wooden frame) into the tub of warm water, filling the mold with soaked paper. Finally, we used a rolling pin over the pieces, squeezing out as much water as we could. The pieces gradually blended into one sheet of new paper. We flipped the new paper from the screen to the third table covered with plastic to dry.
I made four sheets of paper. “When you come back next week you can take the paper home,” my art teacher explained.
As we were cleaning up, I noticed pieces of the sympathy cards still floating in the tub of warm water.
“Can I take these leftover pieces home?” I asked my teacher, not wanting to leave any part of the cards behind. I had become quite attached to the cards. The companionship they had provided for over a year made them seem like a friend, walking beside me, holding me up as I stumbled along the endless days of confusion, anger, and unknowing.
“Sure. Maybe you can figure out a way to use them.”
I put the tiny, wet paper scraps on a cookie sheet that my art teacher loaned me. When I got home, I spread the pieces over the counter of the spare bathroom. After a week, I gathered the wrinkled, dried remains, arranging them on the floor of my office.
I trusted God to lead me to further exploration with the fragments in front of me. I spent time with the pieces each night, sifting them through my fingers, noting the ones with legible writing and signatures. I sorted them by color, and size. One night, I threaded a needle with white thread, and sewed the pieces together, making an X, a strong, basic embroidery stitch I remembered from long ago.
Each night I sewed more of the tiny pieces of paper. God guided the direction of the pattern. When I started, I never knew what would happen, how I would sew the pieces or what shape they would take. I worked on the pieces for about three weeks, and had a strong sense when it was time to stop. I looked at what I had made – something done completely with God’s guidance – a paper quilt.
Sewing the pieces each day, moving the needle in and out of the dried, curled paper, slowly brought a sense of calm to my heart, reminding me how I felt God’s presence when I quilted. When I finished and looked at the rectangular shape, my heart finally experienced peace. The turmoil was gone, my body relaxed. I was in awe of God’s goodness and use of these cards and this craft to help me when no one else was able to reach the place of my deep wounding.
The sympathy cards were transformed in many ways from the time they arrived at my home. Although I wasn’t aware at first, I was being transformed too. After initially feeling resistant to the cards, the colors had ministered to me. Then I ignored the words that weren’t helpful and cut out the ones that were helpful to make my own found poems. I had torn what remained into pieces and soaked them in water to make fresh paper. Then, I had sewn together most of the pieces that remained intact. About twenty small pieces remained after I finished making the paper quilt. I wanted to honor the remaining pieces so I buried them in the woods behind my house. They returned to the earth.
When my art teacher suggested making paper from the sympathy cards, I had no idea what would happen in the process. But transforming these well-intentioned words of love and kindness into something new brought me to a place of comfort and peace.