Ep. 58 – Grief: When A Parent Dies – Dr. Carson and Kristin Pue, Dr. Scott Cairns and Carolyn Arends
- Helping ourselves and our children through the loss of a beloved grandparent
- Living with grief decades after the loss
- Why ‘grieving well’ is important to our emotional health
If life and death occur in the natural order of our expectations, our parents pass away when we are well into our adulthood, but even when we’ve anticipated this loss, we’re often not prepared for our grief.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve the death of a parent. Grief is as unique and different as we are from each other. Yet sometimes it’s helpful to have hints. We hope this episode offers some insight into what will inevitably happen for all of us and some solace for those to whom it already has.
Dr. Carson and Kristin Pue, Dr. Scott Cairns and Carolyn ArendsThis episode is a little different in that we’re interviewing 4 guests who are all experienced grievers.
Carson Pue is an author, speaker, and executive leadership mentor.
Kristin Pue is an early childhood director, educator, and Mom to two boys who you’ll hear about in this conversation.
Scott Cairns is an author and professor at Seattle Pacific University in Washington State. He is also a renowned poet, and you will hear his poignant poem about the passing of his Dad in this episode.
Carolyn is an author, speaker and director of education for The Renovare Institute. She is also a well-known recording artist and it was our honour to have her as a guest for this episode.
Dr. Carson Pue
Dr. Scott Cairns
Ep. 58 – Grief: When A Parent Dies – Dr. Carson and Kristin Pue, Dr. Scott Cairns and Carolyn Arends
Intro to Carson and Kristin
Roy Salmond – This episode is a little different in that we’re interviewing 4 guests and we’ll introduce them as we go.
Rachel Cram – Um humm. Our first guests are father and daughter- in-law, Carson and Kristin Pue.
Roy Salmond – Carson is an author, speaker and an executive leadership mentor.
Rachel Cram – And Kristin is an early childhood director, educator and Mom to two boys who you’ll hear about in this conversation.
Roy Salmond – Together and as a family, they’ve journeyed through the death of Carson’s wife Brenda, who was also a Mom and Grammy to a large family who grieve her loss.
Rachel Cram – And they’ve learned to grieve her loss together…which is not always easy to do as a family.
Roy Salmond – No. So we wanted to share their story.
Rachel Cram – Well, Carson and Kristin, thank you very much for coming to the studio today. It’s a horrendous snowstorm, so you forged the elements to get here. And I’m so grateful.
Well, I just think it’s pretty cool to have a father and daughter in law together in the studio who have a really beautiful relationship, I think.
Carson Pue – Hmm. I actually just call her my daughter.
Rachel Cram – Because you don’t have any.
Carson Pue – I don’t have any girls. So I got them by marriage, which is wonderful.
Rachel Cram – Well, I have known you as a family who have journeyed through many paths together. But the one I want to talk to you about today is the passing of Carson’s wife, Brenda, about six years ago, I think. Is that right?
Carson Pue – That’s correct.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. And obviously, there is no grid for grief, but there is wisdom that can be gained through shared experience. So maybe Carson, can you describe how your journey with Brenda’s illness started?
Carson Pue – Well, Brenda’s illness came upon us so suddenly. We were out for supper with friends and we got in the car and Brenda went to her phone and she had a phone message on it. And it was our family doctor calling her and saying he wanted her to contact him or come in first thing the next morning. And she just had no idea what it was. But it started a 10 or 11 day flurry of testing and then they were going to give the final diagnosis, and the whole family, not the little ones, but the whole family crowded into a very small doctor’s office as she told us that Brenda had stage four lung cancer and that it had metastasized. And that for all of us was like somebody rolled a small scale nuclear device into the room and it kind of blew us as a family away and that’s really when things…it began there.
Rachel Cram – One of the reasons I wanted to hear your story Carson and Kristin was, because unlike the birth process which comes with months of preparation, or even weddings, which also often have months of preparation, we don’t, in the western world at least, have rituals for how we walk together through the dying process. It seems to me that you were able to find a way to respond with intentionality to walk through this journey with Brenda as a family unit together.
Maybe, Kristin, I can just turn and ask from your perspective as an adult child, what was your desire and and hope for how you supported your parents through this or your in-laws in your case?
Kristin Pue – Well, at first you deal with just the shock. Like, I remember looking at mom and just being like,
“This can’t be real, this can’t be happening to us.”
And then for me, I kind of go into the, “How do I fix this?” But I couldn’t fix it. So it was more just what can I do and how do we get through this?
Rachel Cram – And there is that ‘shock’, which can understandably derail some people for a while.
Carson, in that time period when you were aware of what was to come, what were the kind of conversations that you and Brenda had around what you wanted to consider for the experience of your children and your grandchildren? And did you delineate between the two?
Carson Pue – Yes, we did. We do life together as a family, so I guess we have to do death together as a family too. And early on in the process, of course, you’re hoping for a miracle and you’re hoping the treatment that you’re going through is going to make a breakthrough. And you must do that. I think that’s part of kind of going through it. But with the grandchildren, Brenda expressed early that she wasn’t ready to tell the grandchildren. She looked normal, she acted normal, like there was nothing to indicate that there was anything wrong with her. So she didn’t want to say anything at that time. She loved them so much. She didn’t want to disturb them with this, and there was going to come a time when we would talk to them. But for right now, I think she wanted to enjoy them, actually.
Rachel Cram – And then what moved her towards knowing the time had come, and then how did you process that together?
Carson Pue – Yeah, Brenda was able to use a DNA targeted chemotherapy, so she didn’t have many of the symptoms that came from that. But then that had to be followed up by radiation, and radiation would mean that she would lose her hair. And so she began to think about the fact that, ‘I’m physically looking different’ and she was losing weight, too. So, so that’s what made her think that, you know, I think it’s time to talk. And Kristen’s oldest, Landon, he basically was asking questions, which we were skirting, but he was trying to figure out what’s wrong with Grammy.
Rachel Cram – So Kristin, from your perspective, as an early child specialist and also as a mom and a daughter in law, what sort of processing were you doing in your mind about how you’d talk to your children about this?
Kristin Pue – Yeah, it was a struggle trying to figure out how is the best way and what is the best way. But like Carson said, Landon was starting to ask a lot of questions. He was very observant and obviously we were upset. So he was watching mom and dad get upset, but wasn’t necessarily sure why. And I think we got to a point where we just realized we can’t keep this from him because it’s actually causing him more anxiety. And so.
Rachel Cram – How did you notice that?
Kristin Pue – Just, he was, like I said the questions and then just you could tell in his behavior he was and he was always worried, as always asking wanted to go see Grammy asking where we were going all the time. So just little things like that. Our youngest was around five at the time. And you could tell he noticed a bit, but definitely not as much as Landon.
Rachel Cram – Who was 7 right?
Kristen Pue – Yes. So we had to come up with a little bit of a different way to deal with Landon versus the younger children because like I said, they were young and they didn’t really grasp everything at that time.
Rachel Cram – As you knew, that the time was coming, did you have specific concerns? And did you have a game plan in your own mind of how you wanted that to be revealed? And is that something you talked with Carson and Brenda about?
Kristin Pue – Yeah, we did. We did a lot of conversations with Brenda and Carson around ‘how’ because obviously we wanted to respect Brenda’s wishes. And then one of the biggest things, I think this was a doctor that mom was seeing, told us, “Make sure you don’t use the word sick,” because we didn’t want somebody down the road to say, “Oh, I’m feeling sick,” and our boys or any of the kids to associate that with dying. And so we were told to use words like, actually say that it’s cancer, use the word disease. And even though those seem big, it’s better than using a word like ‘sick’ because you hear that word so often. And so trying to avoid causing them anxiety in the future around a certain word.
Rachel Cram – That so make sense. Were there any other pieces of advice that you got that still resonate with you now as wise, like that?
Carson Pue -He also said. Answer their questions directly when they ask them. You know, if they’re asking you a direct question, they deserve an answer to that.
Kristen Pue – Yeah, yeah. I think that’s what we noticed, especially with Landon, is we just had to answer questions and we had to be as truthful as possible because that’s what felt right. That’s what he needed. Whereas Liam, I think watching both my boys are so different, but Liam needed the time and the love, he didn’t necessarily need facts. Landon needed facts. For example, he went to radiation with Brenda because he needed to see what was happening. And the nurses and doctors were really good and gave him information, and he watched and he was with her the whole time. But that’s something he needed, whereas Liam wouldn’t have thought about that at all and wouldn’t have needed that. But Landon needed that.
Rachel Cram – Well, and that’s not necessarily related to their age I don’t think. It’s related to temperament isn’t it.
Carson Pue – Yeah, personality,
Kristen Pue – For sure.
Rachel Cram – When you decided that you were going to tell your grandchildren, did you tell all of them at the same time?
Carson Pue – Well, except for the youngest.
Kristin Pue – Yeah, but she was just a baby.
Carson Pue – She was just a baby.
Rachel Cram – How many grandchildren did you have at that time Carson?
Carson Pue – I have seven wonderful grandchildren, but at the time I had five.
Rachel Cram – OK, and how old were they during this process of time of Brenda’s illness?
Carson Pue – They went from seven and a half to, oh, just months.
Kristin Pue – Six months. Yeah.
Carson Pue – So Brenda’s background is in early childhood education, too.
Rachel Cram – Oh, I didn’t know that.
Carson Pue – Yeah. So she put a lot of thought into this and we had them all over to our house without the parents there. And after having treats and stuff, Grammy sat at the table with them, and she said, “I want to draw something for you.”
So she just took a blank piece of paper and she drew the shape of a woman on the paper and then with a black sharpie, she put these dots on the head, where the lungs are, and in the spine. And she said, “You, all know that Grammy’s got a disease. And that’s what these black dots are. And I’m going through treatments, working with the hospital and with doctors, and they’re trying to get rid of the black dots.”
And you know, that was all they needed. You know, they accepted that. Then she said, I can’t remember her exact wording, but she said. “Most people who have these black dots end up dying from them.”
And then I stepped in and I asked them to come with me into our living room. And I got them to all stand against the one far wall. And then I said to Kristin’s son, Liam, “Liam, how old are you today?”
Then I said, “OK, I’d like you to take five steps out from the wall with your feet one against the other.” So he did that. And Ellie, how old are you? And Landon, how old are you? So I got them all to step out so that they were all at different spacing from the wall.
And then I said, “Well, if grandpa was to do that, I wouldn’t even fit in the room,” but I said, “Let’s say I’m way out here.” and I put myself way out there. And I said, “You know, there comes a time when we will die, we don’t live forever. And we don’t know when that day is going to be, but there will be a day that will come.”
And then at the far end of our room, we have these large patio doors. And it was a sunny day outside, but the curtains were drawn across. So I brought them up to that place with me and I said, “Grammy is going to come to a place where she’s going to leave this room, and she’s going to move into another space.”
And I pulled the curtains back and I said, “Come on and step over this with me.”
And so they stepped out, and here it was a beautiful. sunny day on the other side. We come from an Irish family and there’s an Irish expression, which my dad used actually when he was dying. And he said, “I’m a dweller on the threshold,” and it’s an image of being between this world and the next world.
And so I told them about that, and I said “We’ve just stepped across the threshold, and at some point Grammy will do that, Grandpa will do that and you will do it.”
So they listen too, so then I think it was, Liam said. “So Grammy is going to go through the curtain?”
And I said, “Yeah, she is.” And it’s a wonderful image of it. Now we come from a family of faith, and so our image of that would be heaven. That Grammy’s going to pass through the veil into the mystery of heaven on the other side. And I would believe that whenever anybody is facing the subject we’re talking about now, there is that question of what’s, you know, what’s beyond this? But for Liam, it’s “Oh, Grammy is going to go through the curtain.”
Rachel Cram – I know children at some point, and often it is around the age of five, they realize that being a human being or being alive means that you will die at some point in time. So it’s inevitable that they are going to discover that.
Kristen, for any of your kids or the grandkids or your nieces, nephews, do you think that that was the first time that that had occurred to any of them? Or do you think that was already on their radar a little bit?
Kristin Pue – You know what, I do think it might have been the first time, especially for most of them. And I remember one comment I believe that you made was that Grammy was closer to that curtain than any of the rest of us at this point. And the visual is so good for kids, right? And I think it was really good for them to understand what was happening.
Rachel Cram – Anxiety is a concern. We don’t want that for our children. From my experience I’ve found that when adults have the time and space to intentionally have these kinds of conversations, children have a remarkable capacity to work through it. What have you found with your boys Kristen?
Kristin Pue – I’ve definitely experienced anxieties around loss with both of them. They’ve walked through a lot of loss in their life, unfortunately, not just death, but other things as well. And so I’ve definitely watched that anxiety happen, but I’ve also watched them be able to work through it. I don’t know if that helps?
Carson Pue – We had an interesting experience happen at the internment at the cemetery. Brenda chose to be cremated, but she was in a cremation box that was going to be buried. And the officiant said, “I wonder if we could just let Carson and his family have some alone time?”
And everybody else moved off. And it just left us around the gravesite. And Liam was sticking pretty close to me and he taps me on the leg. He goes, “Grandpa, how did they get the walls so straight in the hole?”
And I went, “I don’t know, but do you want to look at it?”
And he goes, “Yeah.” So he goes up and looks, and Kris is trying to rein him in, but Grandpa is letting him go. And then he comes back beside me, and then he goes. “What’s in the box?”
And I said “Grammy’s in the box.” And it’s a box, 18 inches long.
And he goes, “How did they get Grammy in that box?”
And he’s just asking very practical questions, and so I explained, and Landon came in because everybody wanted to hear this. So I just explained, it’s her ashes and returning, you know, dust to dust. Ashes to ashes. And then we were to a place where we were going to, well we did lower it down into the hole, and then the fellow who was taking care of the cemetery called out to me and he said “Carson, would your grandchildren like to help me bring the dirt to fill it in?”
And they got these buckets and he had them carry them, and they’re pouring the dirt literally into the grave and tamping it down and they were part of that whole experience. And I often think that Brenda just would have been so pleased almost that it was happening. And what has happened, I think as a result of that is they kind of like going to the cemetery to visit Grammy or whatever because they know the whole thing of what it was. So that, I think helped them process a lot as well.
Rachel Cram – As you’re describing that, I can picture, even for the adults around listening to kids and answering those kind of questions, it’s even kind of therapeutic for us as adults I think, because it brings it down to the organic realities of what’s in front of you.
During this whole process, right from where maybe the diagnosis occurred to now. Have you had any cautioning around how your children see you grieve? Like, cry, be angry, sad? Like have you had limits on what you want them to see? Or have you been transparent in front of them?
Kristin Pue – I think the whole family has been really transparent through the whole thing. They saw Grammy cry, they saw Grandpa cry. Our boys saw Jason and I upset and crying. I think that was something we all felt was super important, to be able to show them that it’s OK and to tell them it’s OK to cry. It’s OK to be upset about this and to feel angry. And so we wanted them to see that it is OK and that it’s OK to have those moments and then you can still be OK to have fun the next minute, right? I think we did that a lot. We had family nights every Friday, we did them through her diagnosis, and we had those moments where we played games with the kids, we had a lot of fun and then we had moments where we were all crying and the kids saw it all. So, I think that was really important that they got to see that and knew that emotions were OK to have.
Rachel Cram – And how would they respond in those moments when you are crying? What would they do? I imagine there’s a variety of responses from different kids.
Carson Pue – Yeah. Ellie, Jeramy’s oldest daughter, we would be in a room together and she would be looking at me from across the room. And then she would come over and jump up and give me a huge hug. And you know, it always seemed to happen right when I needed it. So I think that, I think we’re given different gifts during those times and even the children have amazing gifts that they can express at those times.
I loved how they wanted to spend time with Grammy, like they weren’t afraid of her. And this makes me think Rachel about in my age there are a lot of grandpas and grandmas dying. And what we’re talking about here didn’t start with Brenda’s diagnosis. It was building relationship with the grandchildren long before that so that there was an openness of love, a respect for them. I think if you had no relationship with them, I don’t think you could go through what we did.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, but it’s such a gift to be able to do that because death is such a part of life. Like, you said right at the beginning, because we are a little bit isolated from each other, it’s hard to journey through death if you’re not journeying through life together. But when you are journeying through life together to be able to see death as a part of what we all experience, and I feel like that’s what your family has been able to offer. So thank you very much.
Carson Pue – Oh, thanks for having us.
Kirstin Pue – Thank you.
Musical Interlude #1
Roy Salmond – Scott Cairns is an author and professor at Seattle Pacific University in Washington State.
Rachel Cram – He is also a renowned poet, and it was one of his poems that caught our attention for this conversation.
Roy Salmond – Grief specialist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote: You will never get over the loss of a loved one; you’ll learn to live with it. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same; nor would you even want to.
Rachel Cram – Her words reflect the journey Scott has traveled since the death of his father.
Roy Salmond – Which he generously describes in this upcoming conversation.
Rachel Cram – Scott, thank you so much for Zooming with me this morning, as you sit in your dog room so we can get a good wifi connection.
Scott Cairns – Sure. Now, my laptop is quite literally on my lap, but, you know, what are you going to do?
Rachel Cram – You’re being such a good sport about helping us find the best sound quality.
Scott Cairns – And Sophie is with us now, the yellow, the yellow lab. We have a black lab in a yellow lab. This is where Sophie likes to spend the day, on this bed.
Rachel Cram – Well, a huge thank you to both you and Sophie for letting us drop in on your morning to talk with you about you Dad, whose home you now live in I believe?
Scott Cairns – Yeah.
Rachel Cram – You’ve written about your grief with the death of your Dad in books and in poetry I’d love to ask you questions in particular, about your poem Threnody, which describes an experience of loss in the form of your recurring dreams.
Scott Cairns – Yeah. I don’t know how to answer but sure, let’s go. Let’s give it a shot.
Rachel Cram – Let’s give it a shot. Thank you. The death of a parent is a significant life event, and I’m wondering Scott, with the loss of your Dad, how have you learned to welcome your grief?
Scott Cairns – I don’t solicit it. When I’m alone or with people with whom I’m intimate I welcome it. When I’m talking for a podcast, I welcome it less because I am a somewhat interior person. I’m working on that, too.
Rachel Cram Fair enough.
Scott Cairns – I could be a pretty good hermit, I think. I don’t know that that would be good for me, our personhood requires other persons.
Rachel Cram – Well, in hopes of making this a little easier for your personhood, we’re going to play a recorded rendition of your poem Threnody, to save you the emotion of reading it aloud now. And then I’d love to talk with you further.
Scott Cairns – Thank you.
The dream is recurrent, and yes
the dream can leave me weeping,
waking with a start, confused,
and pressing my wet face hard
into the pillow. That is to say
the dream is very bitter.
The scenes are various, the gist
unchanging: my father returns,
and we all are at once elated
that his death was apparently
an error, that he had simply
been away, a visit to the shore.
Then, increasingly, I grow
uneasy about how deeply
he has changed. He is both frail
and distracted (or it could be
that he withholds some matter
pressing on his mind), and none of us
dares speak, neither of his death nor
of his sudden, startling return.
We share other confusions as well:
He has arrived in the camper truck
he drove when I was a boy, but my wife
and children are also here to greet him,
even my son, whom he has never met.
Often, in the dream, I am the one
who first suspects he cannot stay.
I am the one who sees but cannot say
his visit will be brief. And just
as I suspected, as I feared, I wake.
Rachel Cram – Scott, can I start by asking you what does the word Threnody mean, the title to your poem?
Scott Cairns – Well, it’s a Greek word for a gesture for the dead, typically a song for the dead. So, it’s a memorial poem or song.
Rachel Cram – Well, when we were preparing for this episode, Roy mentioned your name, and we pulled up this poem, Threnody, and as I sat there reading it with him, a couple of things came to my mind. One, just how incredibly articulate you are and what a beautiful poem it was. But two, my father in law passed away about 25 years ago, and I have had dreams exactly like you described in this poem. And I had no idea that other people had dreams like that.
Scott Cairns – Yeah. Well, since I wrote the poem, people have shared that with me off and on over the years, and turns out quite a few people have had dreams like that, visitation sorts of dreams, or that’s how they seem. You know, who can say it seems like a visitation of sorts, but I don’t think that your experience is uncommon. It’s a pretty common experience to have an ongoing relationship with our lost beloved.
Rachel Cram – Which is wonderful and painful. You wrote, “The scenes are various, the gist unchanging,” and then you go on to describe what you call a bitterness, of a recurrent dream. How long ago did your father pass away?
Scott Cairns – Well, and that’s the thing, it never really, as far as I can tell, doesn’t really diminish much over the years. He passed in nineteen eighty eight? So coming on thirty five years?
Rachel Cram – Hmm, My husband’s father died over 25 years ago, and he still finds it very hard to be reminded of his Dad without tears coming.
Scott Cairns – Yup. Yeah, I too.
Rachel Cram – And I don’t think when we’re younger that something we anticipate that the mourning never goes away. If you put yourself back into the mindset of you in your twenties, do you think you anticipated that grief would play out so long?
Scott Cairns – No. No. My father’s death was probably the most profound of my grieving experiences in my life, and in my 20s, I hadn’t had such an experience, every other loss did play out and get less poignant and less painful until that one. The pain of that one comes in waves for 30 plus years.
Rachel Cram – How old was your dad when he passed away?
Scott Cairns – He was only 59.
Rachel Cram – You talk about him being frail in the poem. Was his a surprise death?
Scott Cairns – No. He had cancer. Right after my daughter was born, he was diagnosed. He came to see his new granddaughter. See, you’re right, it comes back. No, he had come and he had a sore throat. All the time he was visiting with us, I know he went and sprayed some sort of chloraseptic thing to try to mitigate the annoyance of his sore throat, which when he then returned home, was diagnosed with throat cancer. Took about three years, but we had three years with him, I guess preparing.
Rachel Cram – So, you were in your 20’s, and you were a new father yourself, and when we’re kids, that seems so grown up, but emotionally, were you still relying on your Dad as a guiding light?
Scott Cairns – I know I was. Yeah.
Rachel Cram – Even when you were a Dad yourself.
Scott Cairns – Yeah. I I think the thing I regret most is that my kids never really had him for a grandfather. I mean, my daughter had him until she was three. He never met my son,
Rachel Cram – And even your daughter probably doesn’t really remember him.
Scott Cairns – She remembers him a little bit.
Rachel Cram – How important has it been for you to have your kids know your dad?
Scott Cairns – Well, I don’t know that I’ve pursued that. They know him. You know, we’re now living in the house he built and our kids have been here for holidays for most of their lives, and he was a painter and a photographer and maker of stained glass. So they’ve seen all that stuff in the house. And each of them has a painting. So I haven’t pursued their knowing him, but I think inadvertently along the way they have gained some sense of who he was. We have videos of him too, so they see those.
Rachel Cram – Thinking about your poem as a form of visitation, and even the art and the paintings that he’s left behind in his home, as you raise your kids, are there distinct pieces of him that you see in your children?
Scott Cairns – We share a grin. All three of us with my father. We have very similar dispositions ready to be sarcastic at the drop of a hat. Puns are ever present. Wit. I was raised by a witty man and I attempt to be a witty man. My children are very witty people, full of beans and linguistically attentive. So we pay attention to the language, and I think that’s an inheritance.
I guess I take it for granted that he’s as much of a presence for them as he is for me,
I think one of the reasons I haven’t cultivated that sort of awareness of him is because, it is still relatively painful to speak of it, so, so I tend to just assume that they can glean what they must.
Is that useful?
I have modeled my own fathering upon his fathering.
Rachel Cram – That is very useful. I wonder, with dreams like the one you describe, when he is doing things like arriving with the camper truck, do you still feel him teaching you? Can he continue to be a role model even without being present in the same way?
Scott Cairns – I think what what you’re bringing to my mind is probably the most important thing to know about grief, to know about imminent death, is it can go either of two ways. What I witnessed in my father, he also was a man who was capable of anger. He became less capable of anger as he was dying. He had those years.
My mother said it best, “A lot of people when they know they’re dying, get angry and bitter, your father just got sweeter and sweeter.”
I think that’s the thing he taught me most, how important that development is to our human development and our spiritual development is, begin that journey away from bitterness toward sweetness as soon as you can and stay on that path.
Rachel Cram – I love that. I think part of grieving after our parents have passed comes as we continue to age and begin to see their humanity in the light of our own evolving humanity. It’s almost like another form of a visitation when we can see their life through a new lens.
Scott Cairns – Yes. Yeah, it triggers some synaptic moment in which we get a glimpse of having them in our lives, in our presence once again.
Rachel Cram – We see them in a new light.
So Scott, this might be an unfair question and I don’t know if you can answer it, but I’m wondering if you were your dad, because you are going to one day be in that position of being the dad that’s passing on, would the emotions you have felt for his loss in your life be similar to the emotions that you would want for your son or your daughter?
Scott Cairns – Well I think it’s inevitable that it will be. I wouldn’t wish it on them.
Rachel Cram – Why would you not? Because I hear in your sadness that there’s the grief of a beautiful connection that you had.
Scott Cairns – Yeah. If you could part it so that they would just have the beautiful connection without the pain, that’s what I would, that’s what I would wish. But I dare say that that’s not how it works. So, yeah, I think it’s inevitable that they will probably have a similar mix. Profound emotions.
Rachel Cram – I feel like I’m taking you through the wringer here, but you’re so
Scott Cairns – You are.
Rachel Cram – I’m sorry. I’m sorry. We’re almost done and then we can give Sophie her dog room back.
Knowing what you now know, can you think of any things that you would do differently as a younger man having known how this plays out after a parent passes away?
Scott Cairns – Oh, I don’t know that it has only to do with the grief, but I think, you know, the grief, I would have been a lot more careful to take full advantage of the time we did have. You know, I think that’s a pretty obvious commonplace response to the loss of anything. It’s dearness, it’s preciousness is often not registered until it’s unavailable and then regret that we hadn’t taken more time to savor that relationship or pursue other opportunities to be with those persons. You know, that’s a profound regret.
I do know my father, when I was first with Marsha,
Rachel Cram – Your wife.
Scott Cairns – Yeah. My father, my father, had asked if I wanted to come with him on a boat ride up to Alaska from Seattle. And I had planned to do that, and then little obstacles came up and then Marsha and I had planned to spend the summer in California, where she had taken a job for the summer and we didn’t take that trip. And things like that, of course, also to be mourned, having squandered an opportunity which you didn’t realize you were squandring until it’s too late to recover it.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, well, and as you’re saying that, I think with our parents, they do move more to the periphery of our lives as we age, and especially when you’re meeting significant others and you’re having children, because we are so caught up in the newness of our own adulthood. So I think what you’re describing is just so normal, but it, I think, can carry that kind of regret for many of us.
Scott Cairns – Yeah. So there you go. Are we done?
Rachel Cram – I’ve dragged enough grief out of you. I’m sorry, Scott. Thank you so much.
Scott Cairns – Thank you, Rachel. Good to cry every once in a while. Thank you.
Rachel Cram – Well, I hope I haven’t drained you for the day.
Scott Cairns – Oh, I’m sure something else will come up.
Rachel Cram – Well, thank you so much for taking the time and for your beautiful writing and for this poem in particular. It’s incredibly meaningful, and I’m really grateful to have been able to talk with you today.
Thank you, Rachel. Bless you. See you, Roy.
Roy Salmond – Thanks so much Scott for everything.
Scott Cairns – OK, thank you.
Musical interlude #2
Thanks for listening to family360 and our conversation on grief when our parents pass away.
For our next episode, we’re Zooming to Brisbane Australia to talk with author and adolescent specialist Michelle Mitchell about her informative and pertinent book Self Harm. Self Harm is an intended act of self injury, which often starts occurring during puberty, especially in times of anxiety and stress. Michelle describes how parents can see the signs and understand more about their child’s physical and emotional experience, and how they can intervene. Join us for this important conversation.
And now we return to the conclusion of this episode with our last guest.
Rachel Cram – When we lose a parent, it can take years to appreciate the importance and impact of what is gone.
Roy Salmond – For many of us, the death of a parent is a resounding blow because we know there will never be anyone who will love us quite like that again.
Rachel Cram – Carolyn Arends articulates thoughts like this as we close this episode. Carolyn is an author, speaker and director of education for The Renovare Institute.
She is also a well-known recording artist and it was our honour to have her as a guest for this episode.
Rachel Cram – Oh, Carolyn, thank you so much for being willing to do this interview. I know it’s on a sensitive topic and I know this is a busy time. So thank you.
Carolyn Arends – Oh, it’s my privilege. I’m a big family360 fan right from the beginning, so it’s great to be in conversation with you.
Rachel Cram – Oh, we appreciate that. I’ve actually wanted to interview you for a long time, and several different topics have come to mind but for this conversation, I’m wanting to probe your wise mind on a song you’ve recently released about the death of your Mom.
Carolyn Arends – Yeah, So, we lost her in October of 2018, three years in now. And I had an unusually close, I think, relationship with my mom. She truly was my best friend. I know what a gift that is. And so I always knew losing her would be hard, but I was unprepared for it to be as hard as it turned out to be.
Rachel Cram – You wrote an article on learning to grieve well, and I’d love to pull from that in our conversation. Did the article match up with the release of your song?
Carolyn Arends – Well, probably pretty close by the time things get released. Yeah, I did work on the article first and then wrote the song, and they both come out of the first year of work of learning what it is to grieve well. Yeah.
Rachel Cram – In the article, you mentioned, one of your friends said to you that, “Losing a parent often means losing your bearings,” which is very descriptive. Were his words reflective of your experience?
Carolyn Arends – Yeah. So like I say, I knew it would be hard to lose my mom, but I underestimated the seismic impact of that. And he said, “Be prepared to feel very disoriented. Losing a parent is like losing a mountain range. You’ve never known life without this orientation point.” And I’m glad for that wisdom. That’s one of the things I find myself telling other friends as they lose their parents. This is going to be seismic. And I had been through it with my dad, too. I lost my dad about eight years earlier, and maybe there’s something even more about once they’re both gone. But I did feel profoundly disoriented, and I appreciate that my friend gave me a bit of a heads up that that would be part of the experience.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. Was losing your mom a sudden shock or did you have some preparation time?
Carolyn Arends – No, we definitely had preparation time, but she just kept cheating death. She had many serious medical health problems, but kind of a tiger will. And her name was Joy. People always say that she lived up to her name. She was such a mama bear, way into our adulthood, myself and my two brothers and our kids, her grandkids. She just loved us so fiercely. And I think part of my struggle in learning to grieve her well was that her death was not terribly out of season. You know, she was in her 70s. We would have loved much more time, but it wasn’t terribly out of season. We knew it was coming. She’d been ill for a long time. And so I think I kept telling myself, you know, snap out of it. You have friends that have lost people much more tragically, much more out of season. And so I kept sort of thinking I didn’t have permission to feel the loss as deeply as I felt it. So there was some work to do there.
Rachel Cram – What does it feel like when you’re not giving yourself permission to grieve? Or, atleast, what did it feel like for you?
Carolyn Arends – Well, honestly, I didn’t do well. You have that blur at first. There are things that you have to get done. You have to plan the funeral and there’s estate staff and everything. But for me, I think I just had this sense of, I felt like I was crumbling inside, but the tears would come up and I would fight them. Or if I would let myself cry at night, I would have this feeling of like, “Oh, I’m going to get lost in this, I’m not going to be able to get out.”
So the first turning point for me was about five months in, I’m sitting in a staff meeting. I have my pen out, my notebook out, and just a normal day and I realize that there are just tears streaming down my face, completely unrelated to what we’re talking about. I know enough about mental health. And so I know, “OK, this is not a good sign. You’re you’re crying and you don’t know why. You know, there’s just this kind of disconnect.”
And so I finally sought out a local counselor, went to her office and just sobbed and sobbed, couldn’t even get the words out for a while. And you know, finally, when I was calm enough that we could talk, she was very kind. Got me lots of Kleenex. And she said a couple of really important things. The first was that I needed to stop comparing my grief to anyone else’s and thinking like, I’m on a sliding scale of tragedy, and this is how much you’re allowed to feel the loss. She said the worst grief you can go through is your own grief, which is sort of a quirky thing to say. But I started thinking about it, and thought, “Well, yeah, you know, you have your grief that is yours to process. There’s really no value in comparing it to anybody else’s.”
She actually said three things that helped.
The second thing, she said, was that I could start to understand, in my case, my grief as a really beautiful embodiment of the bond that my mom and I shared and share.
And the third thing she did was give me an assignment to take 30 minutes a day to actually set aside to grieve, whether that was journaling or just crying or going for a walk and thinking sad thoughts or whatever it was going to be. And that sounded to me like the worst possible imaginable thing. Because I had spent, you know, really five or six months just fighting my tears and fighting my grief. But she said, “No, if you will do this, you will discover that you can make space for this in your life and you won’t drown in it. You’ll feel like you’re going to, but you’ll be able to come back to it and you’ll actually be less exhausted than you are now fighting it all day, every minute of the day. You know, if you can create some space for it.”
Rachel Cram – So, how did you do that? How did you create the space?
Carolyn Arends – I don’t think I get 10 out of 10 on the homework. I couldn’t. I couldn’t I couldn’t fully do that.
Rachel Cram – Is that because you couldn’t find the time or it just seemed too overwhelming emotionally?
Carolyne Arends – I think a combination, yeah. And still needing to be present for my family and my work. But it did really shift something in my orientation. When I would feel those waves coming, I honored them more. If it was at all appropriate, I would give myself the space to cry for a while, to feel what I was feeling, to start to let myself be as sad as I actually was.
So that was I think where I started to learn that grieving well is part of the job of becoming fully human. It’s part of what makes you a fully orbed, starting to be grown up human being.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, you end your article saying that your mom taught you how to live, and even now she’s teaching you how to grieve, and I think we do have to learn that. I think of cultures where you hire grievers to come in, you know, and there’s that wailing and crying and you all participate in a very intense expression of grief like that. And you grow up knowing, I think not only is that okay, but it’s necessary. And I don’t think we grow up like that.
Carolyn Arends – No, I remember years ago reading a study, I think it was out of UCLA that, people in the Middle East say, who have this very set season for grieving and it’s very demonstrative, very cathartic. And then you go to a funeral in Canada or America and everyone’s trying to keep it together, hold it together. And they said something like, ‘the people in North America are ten times more likely to suffer kind of depressive complications from their grief than the people in the Middle East who have this outlet.’
And yeah, the importance of liturgies and rituals. My friend Lacey, who I think you’ve had on the show, Dr. Lacey Borgo, she says, “A ritual is a place to park your feelings.”
And so for us, learning to have some ways to mark the loss and remember it. It’s definitely been a learning process, and I think you’re right. I think we would do well to teach the people we love what it looks like to grieve in a healthy way. Even though, man, it hurts. It’s very understandable why we would want to avoid it, because it really hurts.
Rachel Cram – Well, and it’s so complicated too. You are grieving a mother that you are so close and connected with, and sometimes you’re grieving a parent that you’re not.
Carolyn Arends – Absolutely. Yes, I know. And that’s back to my counselor, the worst grief you can go through is your own. Yeah, I have so many friends that part of their grieving of their parents is grieving what they wish could have been and the bond that they wish could have been. So yeah, we each have to be faithful to our own stories and our own losses.
Rachel Cram – Thanks for being willing to share all this Carolyn. I imagine, as a musician, song writing is part of how you are faithful to your own loss. Before we end with your song, and thank you for allowing us to use it, can you just give a little bit of the story of how the song came to be?
Carolyn Arends – Yeah. So, if you sort of look at the trajectory of my journey after losing my mum, at about five months I went and saw this great counselor, that started to turn things a little bit for me. At about six months, I got asked to sing at the funeral of someone else’s mother who had died very suddenly. And when it was time to give the eulogy, her young adult son, a guy named Jordan, got up, which I thought was incredibly brave. He got up, and he said, “First of all, if you’re wondering if Jordy is going to cry, of course I’m going to cry.”
OK, now this going to make me cry.
“It is my honor to cry for her.”
And with that one sentence, he really reframed grief for me, to realize these tears are not something to fight, they are a way to continue to love and honor my mom. So he really reframed it from something to be ashamed of sometimes, when a wave of grief comes up to a way of continuing to love my mom and honor her. And this realization that our grieving is hard, and one of the ways we continue to love the people that we love.
Rachel Cram – Carolyn, I am so grateful for this time with you and for your creative work that you put out into the world through your music and your writing and your speaking. It has been such a pleasure and it is an honor to end with your song.
Carolyn Arends – Oh, thank you.
Musical Interlude – It Is My Honour To Cry For You – by Carolyn Arends
Rachel Cram – We’re so grateful to our guests for this episode,
Roy Salmond – For sharing their journey of grief.
Rachel Cram – Thank you.