Knowing each other fully, and grief

Photo by Linda Shelly, Ethel is lower center.

Today is the third day since my friend, Ethel, died.

I spent yesterday with my siblings, sorting through my mother’s things. The house is empty and clean. The boxes left for us were stacked in the garage by my brother and his wife, who have taken the brunt of the cleaning and disbursing job for the rest of us.

So close on the cusp of only beginning to feel what the world will be like without Ethel, going through the things at Mom’s house adds to the things I’m wondering about.

I've known Ethel best through the small group we've been part of for decades. Twice a month sharing and praying with the women pictured above has taken all of us through so much.

Even so, the Ethel I have known through the years of friendship is smaller than the full picture of Ethel. Parts of her were held only by her parents, who are also gone, her mother so recently. Other pieces are held by her husband, her children, her sisters, her school mates, her friends from voluntary service and college and from nurses training, and those who worked alongside her. Each of the patients she cared for during her time as a hospital nurse and her time as a nurse attending patients at a doctors office know the same Ethel, but in a different way than those who knew her from Victory in the Valley where she found support in her journey with cancer. Everyone who knew Ethel knew their own version of her. It was consistent with her personality, and yet individual to their own relationship.

And now we grieve her loss cumulatively even as we learn more from each other about her. You tell your stories. I tell mine, and we discover that the combination of those stories makes us know her better and more fully now than we did before.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have had that fuller experience of her while she was still with us?

But that isn’t how it works. Her death releases her fullest self and we see a glimpse of it, only to grieve more deeply the loss of that fullness. And yet, it is good. We want to know that fullness, even if it hurts. We want to find joy in still discovering new things about her.  

We are healed a little bit by the sharing of our experience of the people we love. It helps to know that others loved them too. The stories we did not know may fill in blanks for us, a more miraculous and nuanced idea of who this person was.


As we go through Mom's and Dad’s things, and even our old things that were in their home, it is the same. We learn to know sides of them we did not know before. Today we found a love letter Dad wrote to Mom. That is a part of Dad that only Mom knew, and now we know about it, but didn’t experience it in the way she did. So many parts of Dad. So many parts of Mom.

How do you grasp a life?

Today I have seen photos of Mom from her earliest months to the last days before her death. Since they are photos, they do not show the hardest days or the sorrows, but still, they show her baby innocence, the awkward early teenager, the young woman who loved to look beautiful, the young mother, and so many more.

My Grandma, long before I knew her---probably about 18 years old

Mom at about the same age, about 3 years before I began to know her.

My sister and I, long before most of you knew us

I think it is Madeleine L'engle who wrote that we have access to all the selves and all the ages we have been throughout our lives. We are all those things. All those pictures of Mom

Even our mom, whom we loved so much, had parts of herself that we didn’t know. We have learned about some of them by going through her things, by reading things she wrote at different ages, by hearing from her friends and her co-workers and siblings. But to know her completely isn’t possible for us. And to try would mean giving up our own lives, our own complexity, in order to immerse ourselves in her somehow, trying to relive her life completely enough to know it fully. Which we can’t do.

Drawing to the end of the sorting is a grieving process. Soon those new discoveries will be mostly over. The remembering will be driven more by intention than by necessity. And that is as it should be as well.


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