This past Monday night, I did not want to attend Forest Lawn’s annual “Lights of Remembrance: An Evening of Honoring the Memories of Your Loved Ones.” I was tired (hadn’t slept well the night before) and felt like I was getting sick. I also didn’t want to drive twenty plus miles at night to a place I’d never been, or go alone (my husband was too tired and my friend declined). I wanted to stay home, lounge by the fireplace, and watch The Crown.
I also did not want to kick off my holiday season with sadness. I did not want to do the grief dance. (My mom died seven years ago, in December.) I did not want to be reminded about the ways I’d failed her.
But Melissa Gould was the guest speaker. I had to go. Melissa is a former student of mine, whose memoir Widow. . . ish, is being published by Little A books next year. Witnessing her journey has been remarkable. Here she is at the podium Monday night. My photo doesn’t capture it, but she was radiant!
When she first showed up in my class, Melissa had recently lost her husband and was grieving. An award-winning screenwriter, Melissa’s inclination was to write fiction, but she needed to tell her own story. She didn’t yet understand the value her personal narrative held, nor the healing that would come as a result of sharing it. But she showed up in a big way (even when it was scary).
She began her process by writing simple exercises from class prompts, which over time became seeds from which essays sprung about her life as a young widow. Her essays have since been published in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Girlfriend by AARP, Buzzfeed, and elsewhere.
In addition to all the other reasons I didn’t want to go, I told myself it would be better if I got dressed up. I thought the event was happening at a sanctuary, which made it feel like an occasion, but the last thing I felt like doing was putting on heels or makeup.
But then I realized that allI had to do was show up. I set aside the need to “dress” and instead put on comfy leggings, boots, a sweater, hat, and scarf. No make up.
When I arrived, I discovered the event was being held outdoors, and saw other people dressed casually. Here’s the dramatic backdrop for the event:
A choir sang, Melissa read her poignant work, poems were shared, and then Melissa led a “silent reflection,” a guided meditation in which she invited the audience to close our eyes and imagine ourselves in a room with a deceased loved one.
I was with my mom in New York, in our old living room.
“Can you forgive me?” I asked.
“For what?” she said.
“For not being more present in your life, especially as you aged.”
“There is nothing to forgive,” she said.
I felt the truth of that statement.
Then I heard, “You were there for me in countless ways, large and small. You were a wonderful daughter.”
I realized that we all do the best we can, given our consciousness and circumstances—and that this applies to me as well as anybody else. It also occurred to me that I’d been weaving (and believing) a “not-good-enough” story in my role as her daughter, and was finally able to release it.
Tuesday morning I put the candle from Monday night’s ceremony on my altar, placed an empty chair beside it, and invited my mother to join my meditation. During the journal writing that followed, I wrote her a long letter. And she “wrote” back. I heard her voice and wrote what she said.
Since then I have felt her presence strongly, but instead of feeling familiar sadness, regret, and shame, I am filled with love and joy! What a sweet way to kick off the holiday season!
I keep thinking how I didn’t want to go to the event and the one thing that dragged me out of the house was that I wanted to show up for Melissa. She had demonstrated incredible tenacity, courage, persistence, and faith. This is worth celebrating.
I was also grateful to receive an email from her saying that she was moved to see me there and that my presence had been a gift. She told me how writing continues to heal her and is yet another gift.
What strikes me is that gift-giving is fluid and creative, and we sometimes don’t even realize what we’re giving—when or to whom. But also, we never know when we’ll receive a gift. I showed up for Melissa, and she showed up for me—and for everyone gathered to honor memories of loved ones. The gift I received from her was both unexpected and priceless.
This is what’s possible when we show up for ourselves and for each other.
Stories nourish, heal, and uplift us all. Monday night reminded me that we rarely know the power of our own stories—until we share them!
If you have a story you’d like to share, or if you’d like to explore what’s possible for you through writing, check out my upcoming writing circles. Start the new year (and decade!) with the gift of creative expression and healing.
My memoir, Raw, is on sale for $9.99 (no tax or shipping) until December 21 if you buy it directly through my website. Order your copy today!
Get 80+ writing prompts from my new book to ignite your creativity, gain clarity, and reach your personal and professional goals!