We rolled into Brewton, Alabama, midafternoon, a few days before the funeral visitation. Brewton is wife’s hometown. We are burying her mother soon.
The sun was bitterly hot. It was 101 degrees outside, hot enough to remind you of all those Baptist brimstone sermons from your childhood.
We drove past the town sign with its Kiwanis, Rotary Club, and Lions Club badges. “Home of Alabama’s Blueberry Festival,” the sign says. We passed the downtown’s proud brick storefronts, the lamp posts with hanging begonias, and the old stone church covered in ivy.
Meantime, my wife was telling me a funny story about her mother. By the time we were pulling into the bed and breakfast she wrapped up the story by flicking tears from her eyes.
“Lord have mercy,” she said, as I held her in the silence of our car. “She’s really gone.”
Lord have mercy.
It’s been a sobering week since her mother died. Since then, my wife has been telling lots of stories.
Losing a family member is a full-time job. There are gazillions of details that need sorting out after someone departs. There are no idle moments before a funeral.
The irony is, after a loved one’s death all you want to do is hide and lick your sores. But you can’t. You must spend your hours painstakingly deciding on things like floral sprays and who will make the deviled eggs for the wake.
And the whole time you keep getting overwhelmed with this unusual urge. An urge you’ve never had before. You are in “historic preservation” mode, you have the urge to tell stories.
We left for dinner that evening. The dinner was held at the old family house on Belleville Avenue, an antique columned home where my wife’s mother spent her childhood.
My wife took one look at the old house and another fifty stories bubbled to the surface.
We walked inside. The heart pine floors were polished within an inch of their grain, the wainscoting looks just the way it did when Herbert Hoover was a household name.
When my wife touched the old wood, she let loose a lungful of more stories.
All night, these stories came from different angles, from different storytellers, from different perspectives. Nobody could help themselves. Memories hit you like groundswells and all you can do is keep talking.
After dinner, I walked outside to look at the drizzly night so that my wife could be alone with her family and talk. I sat on the porch, using my thumbnail to peel the label from my bottle, trying to think of a few tales of my own.
I looked at the ornate antique home, lit up by the moon. A home where a woman’s entire youth was spent. This is where my wife’s mother once played marbles, hopscotched on the sidewalks, climbed trees, and skinned her elbows. You can practically hear the children giggling in your mind.
In the other room I could hear my wife’s voice, talking animatedly to her aunt and cousins. I eavesdropped through the window and I smiled.
Grief is a strange thing. Nobody ever tells you that grieving feels like being afraid. Neither does anyone tell you that grief doesn’t always hurt, either. Sometimes, it’s cloyingly sweet. Like eating Domino sugar straight from the bag. Sometimes it actually feels good.
My whole childhood was painted with grief. My father ended his life when I was a boy. Grief and I are old friends.
To me, the weirdest part about grieving is that it comes in waves. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you. The emotions don’t rush at you like a river. They come in surges, like breakers on the beach, knocking you down. Just when you think you’re on your feet again, wham, another wave.
As a young man, I’d have moments when I would hurt so badly that something might as well have been stabbing me. Then, in another few moments, I’d be back to normal. Hours later, I’d start crying again. Only this time the crying didn’t hurt. This time, oddly, the crying felt incredibly gratifying. Almost euphoric. Like being wrapped in a down quilt.
I simply cannot explain it.
But that’s grief, I guess. It defies explanation. The moment you try to define grief, you’ve already missed the point. Kind of like I just did here.
Either way, the one thing I do know is that grief is not just a bunch of people boo-hooing like you see in the movies. It is so much more. And it can be beautiful if you let it.
To grieve is to hear the sound of bittersweet laughter while fingering old photographs. Grief is eating bland food and wondering when your sense of taste will return. It is trying to breathe between sobs, and trying to cry between laughs. It is hugging your relatives, and suddenly noticing how frail their bodies feel beneath your arms.
Grief is trying to figure out what you’re going to do with your life. A life which, because of the beatific stories that grief resurrects, now seems more rich and colorful than it did one week ago.
We bury her tomorrow. Lord have mercy.
SW - August 21, 2021 6:31 am
Prayers for tomorrow and the coming weeks. 🙏🙏🙏
Christina - August 21, 2021 6:37 am
So true Sean. Sending much love to Jamie, you and the family. Mother Mary will be deeply missed and lovingly remembered!
Regina - August 21, 2021 6:45 am
Lord have mercy indeed. You just painted grief in vivid colors that we all have felt and seen. As I have wrestled with grief this year, I thought others couldn’t possibly understand how I was feeling. What a beautiful life Mother Mary lived to have stories told about her in smiles and buckets of tears. May we all be as blessed. I will continue sending you and Jamie my love and healing prayers. 💕
Carol Stern - August 21, 2021 7:11 am
Sean and Jamie I will be praying for you. God bless you.
Marilyn Ward Vance - August 21, 2021 10:35 am
I have a picture of me and my girls, laughing our heads off only moments after saying goodbye for the last time to husband/father, because my niece, who was taking the picture said ‘Everybody say s**t’…..what a needed relief from the grief of the week and the last 10 years of Alzheimer’s. Hoping you have some moments of relief.
Debbie Ivie - August 21, 2021 10:42 am
Just beautiful. The waves of grief for a loved one never stop……but they become more like gentle swells. Bless.
Amy Wells - August 21, 2021 10:57 am
Your analogy with the waves is exactly perfect. I have lost both of my parents now, and I could relate to every word of this column. I pray God’s comfort for you all today and the days to come. May you all find peace in the stories. Lord, have mercy indeed.
Joan Moore - August 21, 2021 11:02 am
Thank you for making your family part of ours. We will be praying for God’s comfort and peace… and the strength to share more with us.
Susan Brannon - August 21, 2021 11:31 am
Sean, in my opinion your writing during the illness and death of Mama Mary ( as we all now know her ) has been some of your best. Thank you for sharing! Prayers as you move forward!
Bar - August 21, 2021 11:32 am
Lord, have mercy.
mccutchen52 - August 21, 2021 11:45 am
Sean, you and Jamie have my prayers.
Penn Wells - August 21, 2021 12:16 pm
Grief never ends…but it changes. It’s a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness or a lack of faith. It’s a the price we pay to love.
Jeanette - August 21, 2021 12:39 pm
You just summed grief up so spot on.
Suzi - August 21, 2021 12:25 pm
and the circle remains unbroken➰
Nancy McKenzie - August 21, 2021 12:28 pm
Thank you for this wonderful explanation of grief. Prayers for you and Jamie and the family.
Jeanette - August 21, 2021 12:34 pm
My heart goes out to you. I could not leave my father in the graveyard. I don’t know how my husband and son got me out of there. I guess I’d still be there if it wasn’t for them.
Dr. Dennis Stalvey, aka Preacher Dennis the Storyteller - www.preacherdennisthestoryteller.com - August 21, 2021 12:38 pm
Somewhere in the near distance, I hear Jimmy Durante singing:
I’ll be seeing you
In all the old familiar places
That this heart of mine embraces
All day through…..
Jody - August 21, 2021 8:47 pm
Marcia De Graaf - August 21, 2021 12:39 pm
Praying for you and the family especially tomorrow, Sean. Thank you for so beautifully taking us on the journey with you. I think of Mary, too, and mostly remember her smile and laugh. Thankful the picture on the obituary captures that. God bless. 🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻❤️❤️
Karen wyatt - August 21, 2021 12:49 pm
We are praying for you..when I lost my mom I kept trying to find words to describe what I was feeling . I remember just needed to tell those stories and I am So grateful to the people who listened to them. Take care of Jamie
Lisa Williams - August 21, 2021 12:50 pm
You’re writing is a soothing balm for this soul. Thank you for sharing it all.
Belinda Strickland - August 21, 2021 1:05 pm
Prayers for strength and peace to you and Jamie and the rest of the family. Such a difficult time, but the memories help.
I hope you have some sort of recorder handy- sounds as if you’re being handed material for a book about Mother Mary sometime in the future. Your “ internet people” love her dearly and would surely treasure one.
I hope you’ll not think it disrespectful, but I’ve had this urge to bake a caramel cake in her memory.
Shelton A. - August 21, 2021 1:11 pm
Prayers for you and Jamie and all the rest of Miss Mary’s family and friends. I still grieve for my father and it’s been 35 years. now I’m grieving for my cousin but I’m grateful he’s free from a body that didn’t work at all. God bless you all. God give you all healing, comfort, peace, and strength for the funeral and the days to come.
Stacey Patton Wallace - August 21, 2021 1:11 pm
Sean, you are right; grief can take you by surprise, Everything is going along fine, then, BAM! Something hits you and you are sobbing, I lost Tom Patton, my Daddy, on April 22, 2018; however, I really lost him before that because he had Alzheimer’s. It was indescribly painful to see a strong, amazing, Christian man, who could do almost anything, bit by bit become a stranger who could do nothing: speak, walk, eat, etc. I asked my minister since Daddy would never get better, would it be wrong to pray for God’s mercy and ask Him to take him. My sweet minister said it would not be wrong, so I began to pray for that. Praise God for His love and mercy; my Daddy was in that awful state for sixteen days; then God called Him home. Now Daddy is whole again and happier than he’s ever been. However, grief still comes over me at times. About a month after Daddy died, Mike and I were watching the movie, A Quiet Place. At the end, the father sacrifices his life for his children. As the credits rolled, my sweet, wonderful husband sat there with me while I sobbed and made the ugly face cry. I know that God will help you and Jamie through this terrible time. Love and prayers for y’all.
Lori - August 21, 2021 1:16 pm
Praying for you all❤️
Suellen - August 21, 2021 1:20 pm
How beautiful for you to be able to go back to the family home and gather. I don’t even know the homes my parents grew up in or most of my grandparents for that matter. I only know the farm where my Grandpa grew up, my Mom’s Dad, and that is no longer in the family. My family is not close. I’ve tried. The saying is always see you at the next funeral and that seems to be enough for them. That’s a whole nother kind of grief for me. I’m holding you and Jamie up in prayer. The days that you are walking through are some of the saddest yet most meaningful of your life.
Nancy Crews - August 21, 2021 1:40 pm
❤your writing. There are no words.
SilkPurseProductions - August 21, 2021 1:42 pm
“She’s really gone.” Struck a nerve and keeps reverberating through me. I lost two brothers in May, 10 days apart. Because of the COVID protocols here in Ontario, Canada. There were no hospital visits to say goodbye, no funeral, no wake, no service. No gathering and telling stories. We couldn’t even hug each other for comfort as we were all in lock down. It was as if it hadn’t happened. I never mentioned it to anyone other than immediate family and my husband, of course they already knew. In the past couple of weeks I have been going through family photos and I see one of my brothers and a story pops to mind, then I remember, oh yeah, “He’s really gone”.
Treasure every second you get to tell stories with your people about Mother Mary. Envelope each other in the biggest bear hugs you can muster and cry. Just cry.
David McClellan Jones - August 21, 2021 1:48 pm
You’re the best writer I’ve ever read. Thanks for what you do, and for sharing your heart with us.
Sheila G - August 21, 2021 1:49 pm
Kyrie elieson…Lord have mercy.
Anne Arthur - August 21, 2021 1:55 pm
Sean, this is the best explanation of grief I’ve ever read. So true. Mother Mary is certainly proud that you are honoring her life in so many wonderful ways.
It’s tough to let go; yet, her memory will live on, even in your writing.
Condolences to Jamie, you, and the entire family. May you be strong for tomorrow’s service.
Farris Jones - August 21, 2021 2:06 pm
Sending y’all many thoughts, prayers! Thank you for sharing Mother Mary with us through these beautiful stories!
Richard Owen - August 21, 2021 2:14 pm
Totally agree with you on grief coming in surges. Even today, I get hit 30 years later after the death of my 19 year old son. And you are also right. Sometimes the tears bring a smille as I remember Little League games and how big his hands were when he was born.
Look forward to hearing more stories about Mother Mary in the future. May she rest in peace….
Pamela J Ewers - August 21, 2021 2:24 pm
I am very sorry for you & your wifes loss. Special prayers & hugs to both of you during this time of need. I Love your columns , but know you are grieving …
donnablair - August 21, 2021 2:37 pm
I’m so glad you are continuing to share this journey with us. Kinda helps put some words to my own grief. God bless all of you.
Patricia Gibson - August 21, 2021 2:56 pm
Prayers and hugs for all of you🙏 You are comforted by the great life Mary had and she will always be with you❤️❤️
Rhea Wynn - August 21, 2021 3:02 pm
My family shared story after story when as we grieved our father, then our sister, and then our mother over the past six years. We still tell stories when we get together – it keeps our loved ones alive in our hearts. Praying for you and Jamie as you travel these waves of grief. Your imagery is spot on!!!
Tom - August 21, 2021 3:12 pm
Grief being like the sea is a more apt and accessible description than the more clinical five stage model, and it has the advantage of being Biblical (creation being made in opposition to the sea in Genesis, and the sea being no more in Revelation). I use the sea metaphor a lot with hospice patients and families. And I remind them that grief is sneaky too, just like the sea. The gravest danger is the rip tide that pulls you away when all seems calm. Such as when months later feeling much better after your loss you walk happily into a loved one’s home calling their name until the mocking silence finally convicts you that they are indeed dead, and gone, and you melt. Most folks can recover from that, and do, like most folks can ease away from a rip current once they sense it, but some struggle and fight until their strength is gone. To put it in theological terms, grief is a bitch.
Jo - August 21, 2021 3:29 pm
“Death ends life, not a relationship.” Morrie Schwartz from Tuesdays With Morrie.
Brenda - August 21, 2021 3:36 pm
Bill Harris - August 21, 2021 3:37 pm
Thank you Sean.
Linda Moon - August 21, 2021 4:11 pm
Storytelling. Beautiful, colorful storytelling. I love the stories. I’ve read and actually heard “have mercy” from Jamie at times, and her stories are always welcome. The Belleville Avenue family house….just the description of it is a story, and fifty more of them would be welcome. So, keep telling them Sean, Jamie, and family….long after Mary is buried. Lord, have mercy and show love to them all in this time of grief. Amen.
JANICE ROBERTSON - August 21, 2021 4:23 pm
My deepest sympathy for your wife and you. My Mama has been gone for 20+ years now and Daddy has been gone for 16+ years and I still have moments of sweet memories and grief. I also have been known, still today, to tell sweet stories of both my Mama and my Daddy that brings tears to my eyes. It does get easier though.
Karen Peters - August 21, 2021 4:39 pm
The wave analogy is a perfect description of my own experience. I hope it’s ok to share this in the grief support group at my church.
Ann - August 21, 2021 4:47 pm
You have such a wonderful way to make others feel all that you write. Prayers for all of you in the days ahead. Loosing your Mother is a very hard and the pain last forever.
Sue - August 21, 2021 4:54 pm
Rochelle - August 21, 2021 5:49 pm
Thoughts and prayers for you and the family – such a beautiful picture of grief.
Cindy - August 21, 2021 6:01 pm
So sorry for your loss. Your words are so true and soulful. Prayers for your family.
terrykerns - August 21, 2021 6:05 pm
My Daddy died one month and three days ago.
Your writing, Lord have mercy, it is spot on.
Thinking of you both as we navigate this part of life.
Alicia Folds - August 21, 2021 6:33 pm
I certainly miss all the stories from the old timers. Front porch visiting, drop in visiting, Sunday dinners, which no one does any of these anymore. I always tell people, my door is always open and they are more than welcome at my home anytime. In fact, I love visitors, entertaining and cooking. Especially biscuits. Lol Thank you for bringing others stories and your own to us.
Mary Coley - August 21, 2021 7:24 pm
I am so, so sorry. God bless you all. Beautiful story.
Nedra Martin Tucker - August 21, 2021 8:09 pm
Lord WILL have mercy. I see it from here as I write. Having the wonderful stories to sustain you at the worst time of your life and make you smile, laugh and cry is all what I believe is part of God’s amazing Grace. It has been many years since I lost my Mama and to tell you the truth, I still have a moments when I think about her with tears in my eyes, a breaking heart when a great memory eases the pain and I smile, look up and say, “ I know that was you God!” He is gracious and always on time. “Precious Memories How the Linger” God Bless you, Jamie and Family.
Freddo - August 21, 2021 8:36 pm
Condolences. Lost my dad a couple of months ago, and your writing has helped me to stay grounded in the aftermath. Thanks.
Judd - August 21, 2021 10:04 pm
Sean, I’m two years and change out on losing my mama. Been thinking of y’all with your columns the last several weeks. When I heard the news of Tom T. Hall this morning I had to smile a bit after the initial sorrow. You may have lost your earthly drinking buddy as you mentioned a few days ago, but I’ll bet those two are having a bit of watermelon on the wine side welcoming each other to blissful happiness and trading stories about children and doubling down on old dawgs
Sandi. - August 21, 2021 10:19 pm
Dear Jamie and Sean, as you walk through these days of grief, especially tomorrow at Mother Mary’s funeral, know that much heartfelt sympathy and many prayers are with you. God will give you the strength you need, but it’s all right to cry again. Tears can be very therapeutic. Hold each other close and remember the good times when Mother Mary was at her wittiest and made you smile. I’m sorry for your loss of such a wonderful family member.
Robert L Chiles - August 21, 2021 10:38 pm
During grief, you often fear that you will forget the stories, or even forget the person; but don’t worry, you’ll always remember them. They are etched in your heart and in your very being. Praying for you and Jamie. Be at peace.
vic brown - August 21, 2021 11:17 pm
He does. Thanks
Ann - August 22, 2021 12:10 am
Grief comes differently for everyone…a friend once told me he was often “ ambushed”….dealing with life, seemingly doing ok…then BAM!….it’s a very descriptive word, then on with some lovely memories.
You understand and are loving support for Jamie and she for you. Peace for you both.
Karen Snyder - August 22, 2021 3:33 am
Lord have mercy. We are assured that He extends his mercies anew each morning. May they help you all continue to navigate the changes. ❤️
Jan - August 22, 2021 4:03 am
Grief means you were blessed to have had love in your life.
Nancy M - August 22, 2021 12:53 pm
Waves of grief, a very accurate description. Truth.
Horatio Spafford knew it, too, when he wrote “when sorrows like sea billows roll.”
It is well with your souls, too, Sean and Jamie. God does have mercy, for all of us.
Love and prayers.
Gayle Wilson - August 22, 2021 7:22 pm
Sean, thank you for articulating grief in a way that allows us to know we don’t have to walk around with all hung down faces and wearing grief as dooms day, and that makes us feel guilty if we do have the urge to laugh and smile about the loved one we have lost.
Dianne Risdon - August 22, 2021 9:28 pm
This is beautiful.
Kathy Coxwell - August 23, 2021 1:59 am
Grief. You hit the nail on the head.
Ellen Hunsucker - August 23, 2021 6:52 pm
Even though you said that grief couldn’t be defined, you described it perfectly! Seeing my feelings in written form helped me so much! Thank you for sharing this difficult time with us, your readers! You have such a gift so please never stop writing. I’m looking forward to your next novel
CHARALEEN WRIGHT - August 24, 2021 3:29 pm
Katherine D Kempf Jones - August 30, 2021 2:59 am
Sean – This was such an amazing story & column! THANK YOU! Even more amazing is that you all are WISELY letting it all FLOW! This is so Good. Please keep it up. All the Best to you & Jamie. – w/affection & hope – DiAn