We Are All Part of the Puzzle: To Jill in Heaven with a Smile
Grieving is like working a crossword puzzle someone gives you for Christmas or your birthday. It sits unopened on the shelf, because you are too busy with life to open it and although it has that pretty picture of a lighthouse on the cover, you just have time to glance at it in passing. Besides your hands are too busy to work a crossword puzzles. Her hands were busy, usually for others. I hope there is a place for busy hands in heaven. She started working jigsaw puzzles when she was six or seven. We worked them together, laughing and talking and arguing about the placement of the pieces. When I heard what the County Care Team had to tell me, I knew I would never laugh again. How can I laugh when she had drowned while kayaking? How can I laugh because she can no longer laugh with me at least where I can hear her?
Then part of your heart and life is gone, usually a foundation part like the foundation of the lighthouse on the cover of the puzzle and the light that is supposed to shine through the fog with hope and guidance is in pieces, like your heart. The foundation pieces, the edge pieces, have different sizes, shapes, colors. There on the edge is death, final like a jutting gray rock, despite its bright colors, anchoring the others. Divorce sits in one corner, the loss of the job loved for twenty years snuggles in another corner. Other pieces are lettered with stark words that don’t reveal the pain behind them. Words other than death, divorce, job loss, stare into the horizon. Words like losing a pet, losing a romance, losing a dream, losing a friendship, losing something important in your life. Loss equals grief, part of everyone’s life puzzle.
I grieve the loss of the stages of her life. I lost her babyhood when I had to chase her churning, crawling, body around the house and I grieve the loss of when it turned into the terrible twos when she discovered “no” and nap moratoriums. I lost the school years when I got notes from my “doughter” and “I Love You’s committed in writing, and the later years of book reports, lab reports, report cards and baseball and track events. I grieve the college and career years, the got married years, the “Oh mom” years turning into “you are my best friend” years. I grieve the loss of the years and I grieve the loss of her. Her death twisted my thoughts and feelings into corn mazes with no foreseeable exit.
Days and events dictate how soon you will go to the closet shelf and take down the puzzle and begin to try to put it together. There is a time to stand and look at the puzzle and refuse to even think about opening it. Are you really standing here? This has to be one of those nightmares that filter through your dreams like fog gradually smothering and swallowing the lighthouse. You are certain that the fog will never lift. The foghorn doesn’t sound in your mind or ears and the beacon light pulses sullen and gray with generations of stops between pulses. You don’t feel any refreshing spray or droplets from the fog lifting and you feel more like vulnerable driftwood instead of embarking on a luxury liner cruise to the South of France sipping bon voyage champagne.
Your driftwood voyage can span days, weeks, months. At first you stand staring at the puzzle pieces. The pictures on the pieces are different. Some are pet pictures. There is a dog with a goofy smile and the pointed ears of a boxer. A calico cat occupies another piece. Sitting next to the corner puzzle piece is a piece with a little girl with brown pigtails, a princess dress, and a smile that crinkles her dimples and right next to her a little boy with a straw in his mouth aims the paper covering at her. A man with bifocals magnifying his calm eyes looks into your soul from another puzzle piece and the pursed lips of a woman putting on makeup are reflected in the mirror of her puzzle piece.
Other more aggressive puzzles pieces jab your shock and denial with sharp edges that push them to the edge. Tides of pain and guilt crash against the foundation of the lighthouse puzzle picture. How can you fill the chasm in your heart and life? The pain equates a forty on a scale of one through ten and the guilt eats through your sand defenses grain by grain.
My life without her is twisted up like a cardboard jigsaw piece caught between two rocks. It will never be straight, smooth, and happy again. My “what ifs and “if only” number more than sea waves and crash on my heart every minute. If only I could have talked her out of kayaking. What if I had played the mother card, even at her age.
The “God, how could you do this to me?” anger puzzle pieces appear next. There are many puzzle pieces that express anger with God. Fist shaking, foot stomping, indifference, ignoring, disdain, disbelief. All of the pieces can fit together at once or separately with time in between. Sometimes you need grieving anger to get you out of bed in the morning and propel you through your day. You have to choose your own grief method and take your own time. God allows choice, and He is patient. He listens and waits with His comfort.
I was angry with her for not listening to my admonitions to be careful. I was angry with her because I had to go back to her empty camper at her campground and know that she would never again be standing in the doorway to greet me. When I knocked on the door, I would not hear her grumpy “come in.”
“Why didn’t you listen to me? I raged inwardly. I am angry at myself. Why hadn’t I been a better mother so she wouldn’t have taken such risks? Why had God taken her away from me? I wasn’t perfect, but did I deserve to lose my youngest daughter, my baby? My anger felt good for a while. It helped drive away the sadness. For a while.
Sadness puzzle pieces lurk over blessed and burning well- thumbed over memories and they sweep over me like the tide. The tide doesn’t go out for a long time. I don’t remember how long I was under water, covered with sheets of water, drowning. Then one day, the thought of her smile made me stick out an experimental toe and move my feet and began to tread water. Sometimes I stopped to drown again, but there she was in her kayak urging me to keep going. I started treading water again. The effort and concentration it takes to keep working the lighthouse puzzle tapped into some deep survival reservoir that I didn’t know I possessed or that I was using.
I am not happy without her. Time will not find every memory of her that wounds me. It will not fill the ocean of loss of her uncompleted life, her undeveloped potential. Time will not erase the fact that I am her mother missing her and there will never be another her. Time and her teddy bear wearing the hat that she knitted who lives on my dresser will not bring her back to me. But now once in awhile it makes me smile.
The sixth stage of grief? Working A Personal Jigsaw of Loss
The life puzzle you have been working so diligently is gone. One day it was comfortably there, waiting for you, with pieces to anticipate, and the next day the outline and the partially positioned pieces are in disarray. You stare it like a robot. The pattern is jumbled like the pieces of a dropped puzzle that you so carefully assembled. You stand staring, petrified still.
How is it possible to make meaning of loss? The person or the thing or the situation you loved is gone. How do you make meaning of that?
Puzzle pieces are unpretentious. What you see is what you get. You can embroider them with your hopes and dreams and agendas, but when the waves crash against your lighthouse puzzle, they expose the rocks of reality and the spray penetrates your waterproof mind. You know you have to live. You have to finish the puzzle. What you don’t know is how or when you will finish it. There is no set direction. Some people use linear pieces and fit the others around them. Others fill in the corners and work toward the middle. Some people develop and use several different solution theories. Grief is not one size fits all. You have to find the size that fits you and go with its flow. I have not completed the puzzle, nor do I expect to do so. You can move on from grief, reconstruct your life, but you never can completely move through it. It is part of you, a piece that you keep shaping and reshaping.
But when memories make you smile over the pain, you know you are reworking the jumbled puzzle.
Mom, you’ve come a long way. Keep working the puzzle. And I see her smiling and I can smile with her. Not for long, and not 100 percent sincerely, but I am smiling.