OVER MY LIFETIME I’ve had many opportunities to learn about grief. I’ve lost a lot of close family members: one brother, four grandparents, one son, two uncles, two parents and a mother-in-law, one husband.

When a family member dies, there are all those departure-from-life tasks to be attended to, most immediately the care and disposal of the body: Embalming? Traditional burial? Green burial? Cremation? Keep or disperse the cremains? Funeral, memorial service, non-traditional ceremony, or none at all? This decision-making can feel onerous, but in fact it is a welcomed, if temporary, diversion from grief.

There may be a glut of sympathy cards. Does one keep them in a pile? For how long? Or put them in a scrapbook to be reread over the years? Or does one angrily rip them into shreds because the pre-printed sentiments don’t begin to address the reality of grief’s pain?

Then there are the sale/disposal/transferral of personal belongings, real estate, financial holdings, accounts needing to be closed and bills to be paid. Even when my 13-year-old son died and there was no estate, and few financials besides medical bills, it still seemed as if there was a lot of paperwork. And one must “be strong” and keep up a good front to attend to all these things. Mourning can come eventually, but not now.

Even with the best advance planning, and the decisions already made, the ”plan” still has to be implemented, and the bulk of grieving can be postponed until “later, when things settle down.”

BUT THIS WEEK I learned something new about grieving. When a dear friend dies, there are seldom any sympathy cards. There is no official role for a friend to play, no tasks that occupy and hold grief at bay. There is only raw mourning, and the tender empty hole inside, a dismally dark hole because the light of my friend’s life has been extinguished.

Because we were both wise, my friend and I had said our goodbyes, each time we were together. Together we’d considered the fact that one of us would die first, and that the remaining friend would miss that one dreadfully. We’d always said, “I love you,” even in his last conscious moments before he was too weak to mumble much more.

So there were no loose ends to be tied up when my friend died. No departure-from-life tasks to distract me. And there are no more dinner dates, no more silly spontaneous limericks, no more fretting over politics, no more swapping stories and sharing village concerns.

Now there are only the severed cords of our no-longer-being-together. They dangle, fraying, swaying in the damp gray winds of October.

Oh god, Leo, we were right. This one who remains misses you dreadfully.

Leo E. Baldwin July 23, 1920 – October 22, 2018

Photo by Christin Chaya

36 replies
  1. Marian Blue
    Marian Blue says:

    I hope, Cynthia, that this writing helps a little with your ache. I hadn’t thought about how “out in the cold” a friend can feel. Family, deep in their own grief, may not have the ability to include others in the planning and activities you describe. Thank you for reminding me to be grateful for those times that I have been included, as a friend, and felt as though I’d been part of the transition. Bless you!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      It’s a kindness, when we have the opportunity, to notice a grieving friend, and acknowledge their loss. So . . . thank you for your kindness. And thanks for being exactly who you are, my friend.

      Reply
  2. Prescott
    Prescott says:

    Having lost a family member this summer, your review of the process is poignant. Leo seems a wonderful soul, and his daughter and her partner are an excellent legacy. I am both happy and sad to know you and Leo had a meaningful friendship.

    Reply
  3. Shirley Jallad
    Shirley Jallad says:

    Tears of sadness are dripping down my face as I think of you mourning the loss of all those so dear to you. . . and now, this painful emptiness you’re feeling for the loss of dear Leo.

    Cynthia, you are precious. You are a gift. Your friendship, writings, and photos are leaving a permanent mark on us all.

    I’m grateful our paths crossed at Hillsdale College. The mug you gave me still sits on my desk – reminding me of your brilliance.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      One of the things I love to do is imagine each connection in our lives as a point from which a silver thread begins. That thread reels out through all the years that follow, but it never breaks – very occasionally I can imagine the whole lovely web spread out over four dimensions, shining, and it makes me smile. Thanks for holding an end of one of those threads for so many years!

      Reply
  4. Tom Hartwig
    Tom Hartwig says:

    A long time ago you were central in creating many wonderful improvements in the lives of many here in Michigan including me. I have followed you throughout your journeys through your writings and a very occasionally contact these days with Michael. You have assisted so many here and on your many journeys. Some now on the planet….many not as you say. We friends, present and past, wish to say you are far from alone in your grief forevermore. One who has been so courageous, caring of others, and helpful to those with so little….is never alone.

    I regret your loss. He and you are in my prayers and thoughts. May our paths cross again.

    Reply
  5. Paul McShane
    Paul McShane says:

    I did not have the pleasure of knowing Leo. Now I have that pleasure . . . even if only a little bit. Thank you, Cynthia.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      It is indeed a wonder to have known someone who has quietly moved the measure of our world a notch toward the positive side. The shift was palpable with every encounter.

      Reply
  6. Tammy Bright
    Tammy Bright says:

    Dearest Cynthia,
    I am so sorry for your loss. Leo looks like a wonderful man.
    Thank you for writing this blog and sharing your healing journey.
    I am all too familiar with the concepts you speak of as well as the reality of losing a loved one.
    A year ago, October 13th, I lost my younger brother who was also my dear friend.
    He sadly and tragically took his own life one day before his 43rd birthday.
    The week before he had sent me a text message asking me to be the executor of his estate should anything happen to him. At the time I thought he was preparing for something much more different than what he had in mind. Wanting to honor him and be true to my word I fulfilled his request. It has taken me over a year now to settle his estate and for the last year my grieving process has been distracted and has taken a back seat to the intense work that needed to be done and this has undoubtedly been the worst year of my life. Suicide is a horrible horrible thing and leaves so many unanswered questions as well as a lot of self guilt ridden shoulda, coulda, wouldas for everyone to feel. However, Jeremiah had countless close friends that I witnessed sharing the same empty dismally dark hole as you and I was able to call upon many of those friends at various times to help me through my journey. Most of them I didn’t even know existed until after Jeremiah’s death. I have made many new friends and I have gotten to know my brother in an entirely new way. I am much older than him and we were separated by many states, and although we spoke on the phone often I didn’t really know exactly the man my brother was until I got to know his friends. I learned that Jeremiah was a great man who surrounded himself with great people. A true measure of a person is the company that they keep, Leo indicates that in you and you in he. Friends of loved ones passed, although left with no distractions to their grief, fulfill an often time greater need to those whose grief is distracted by life’s tasks, and I for one am most grateful for them. Even the smallest of gestures have made a significant impact in helping me cope.
    In reading your blog it rings true to my heart that no matter how old or young our dear friends are we should value and treat each and every moment with them as if it may be our last. You and Leo shared something very special in your openess to act upon the reality of the inevitable. Not everyone gets that chance and not everyone who has that chance acts upon it. Although you miss your sweet Leo dreadfully, it brings joy to my heart that you find comfort in having done that with your dear friend.
    May God be with you and on this gray October day and may your heart be filled with the light of Christ.
    Endearingly,
    Tammy

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Tammy, I will read this comment many times. Thank you for taking the time – and the thoughtfulness – to write from your heart to mine.

      Reply
  7. Susanne M Fest
    Susanne M Fest says:

    Though I have lost both family members and friends I never thought about the phenomenon you describe, Cynthia: how the presence of a to-do-list can provide a structure and an anchor for grief, and how the absence of it can result in a kind of free-floating disorientation. I have experienced this before, but have never articulated it for myself. Thank you for doing this work and for sharing it with us.

    Reply
  8. Miriam Raabe
    Miriam Raabe says:

    Cynthia, I am so grateful that you did, indeed, push the publish button on this post. While your writings, whenever I get a chance to read them, are always immaculate and always ring true, this one touched me and helped in simple and direct ways with my journey. You shone a light so well, on the one hand, on the details of everyday life, those that keep us occupied and rooted and distracted from our sadness and deep tiredness, and, on the other hand, on the deeper connectedness that remains and tugs at us even when the person we love is no longer there or is very gradually fading away.
    I will definitely save this post of yours and turn to it again. Thank you so much. Sending love.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Dear, dear Miriam, sometimes the “deep tiredness” is more painful than sadness, and the “gradually fading away” hurts more than death. Thank you for responding, even from the depth of your own heartache. Please continue to look for the light of my tiny candle, glowing in support of your Journey.

      Reply
  9. Alison Heins
    Alison Heins says:

    Oh, what aching pain! One can only seek solace in friends and whatever resources, internal and external, one has. I can only relate through the loss of a dear dog. The pain of that loss was agonizing!
    Thanks for sharing this fresh and raw reflection!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      I confess I almost didn’t post it, fearing it was too raw to be appropriate. Then I decided it was a way of honoring the depth of my feeling, and hit the “publish” button. I’m glad I did.

      Reply
  10. Kit Ketcham
    Kit Ketcham says:

    Cynthia, what a hard time of life, to lose someone dear, yet understanding that this experience is natural and appropriate. Your own wisdom and experience guides you, but it doesn’t erase the pain. Sweet memories for you.

    Reply
  11. Cynthia Trowbridge
    Cynthia Trowbridge says:

    I am thinking of the many intersections in which meeting up with Leo will no longer happen in our community. I hold you and Leo in your loving and now grieving relationship, dear friend.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      It’s at those “intersections” where so many of us will feel his absence most keenly. Thanks for your love.

      Reply
  12. christina
    christina says:

    I have been thinking of you alot these days…knowing you were in a spaciousness of emotion. I am moving at the pace of guidance, making sure I have the blessings that you have mixed in with the details–which do not have to be done quickly. I call these days practice in living while crying… Tea soon. Christina the daughter.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      “Practice in living while crying” – indeed. It was so powerful to watch your attention and care for Leo at his bedside. He was a huge part of your life for this past decade. Now there’s a gigantic hole in “how things ought to be.” And you are very wise in recognizing that those details do not need to be rushed. Yes, tea soon.

      Reply
  13. Bonnie Marsh
    Bonnie Marsh says:

    Cynthia, I’m so very sorry about Leo’s death. You’re right – there’s nothing for grieving friends, except raw grief. May you be held very gently during this time, for as long as it takes. And if Leo was frequently in your life, it may take very long indeed. Much love to you.

    Reply
  14. Wendy Gilbert
    Wendy Gilbert says:

    Sending my love, Cynthia. Leo was a special individual, your loving words of what he meant to you resound. He is greatly missed.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Leo had a major impact on his community and the organizations he served. I think he never heard of the word “retirement”!

      Reply
  15. Margaret Rode
    Margaret Rode says:

    Such a fiercely accurate description of this, my friend. Sending you love – just love – as you move through this chapter. A beautiful man.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Another lesson: even though it feels “inappropriate,” it really is okay to ask for sympathy when one is truly grieving.

      Reply

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