Complicated Space

As the “local daughter,” once Mom’s diagnosis of metastatic pancreatic cancer was confirmed, I toggled between showing up and removing myself from the space as much as possible so that her other children could get what they wanted and needed from her dying process. Out-of-town siblings and their families visited often. Mom’s sisters and brother came to town. Each weekend that fall and early winter of 2020 felt like an extended family holiday.

We sang, laughed, watched Hallmark movies, and worked puzzles. We fixed family-favorite meals and received meals from Mom’s small group at church when we needed extra support. Each weekend, my sister-in-law, the “local son’s” wife and unsung hero, held a revolving door of hospitality for out-of-town guests.

Reality is, death takes up space, and the process of mom dying took up a big space in my life. Weekday afternoons or evenings I walked across town, Hindsight 2020 playlist filling my ears as I traveled back and forth. Weekends were spent at whatever location the extended family gathering was held, with whoever was in town.

While death took up space in my life, it simultaneously took away space from my home. Time with my own family was reduced, and I missed the new rhythms they developed during that season. There are moments referenced by my husband and children that I do not remember because I was not present for them.

This is the complicated space opened by death. I stepped into it.

“Julie, your grief is taking up all of the space in the room.”

 My sister’s words landed painfully, deeply, as we sat in an upstairs bedroom at Mom’s.

Being the firstborn, I had the most time with Mom and Dad. My memories and felt sense go back the farthest, triggering my deep grief during a moment of her delight. On one winter evening, Mom sat reclined in her usual spot on the brown leather couch, blanket tucked around her. Siblings and spouses gathered around the fire built by our youngest brother, his faithful contribution during those days together.

Sister sat at the keyboard and began playing the usual songs. We commenced our evening ritual of singing through a repertoire of Mom’s favorites. After some time, Dad jumped up from beside her on the couch, grabbed a hymnal, and began adding hymns to the mix, singing along, sitting beside my sister, taking up more space of his own.

I was immediately transported to the beginning. The early years. Me as a little girl in the red, white, and brown sanctuary of Capital Baptist Church. Dad, the minister of music, was leading hymns from the front, Mom somewhere in the pew or the nursery or the choir loft.

Where was Mom?

As siblings arrived, taking up more space in the family, Mom’s mantra to me each time she announced a pregnancy was, “You have room to love another sibling.” Did I, though? Did I have room? I tried. I loved my siblings as best I could, and here we were, and Mom was dying.

I tried to contain the pain, the grief, the shock of all that was happening. It sloshed and spilled and overflowed, leading to this moment in the upstairs room. I was failing.

We sat together, Sister and I, creating space for listening, hearing, seeing. We held space, each for the reality of the other. We took up space and allowed for space and leaned into space. More space opened for each of our stories, our perspectives, our pain. In this moment of honest communication, a type of healing came and opened up enough space for all of the grief in the room.

Julie McClay lives in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with her partner of 31 years, four of their eight children, and six fur and feather babies. Two precious grandchildren bring deep joy and delight. Julie is a lover of stories and words. She serves clients, both in person and virtually, through Heart Path Story Coaching, offering a creative space of kindness, curiosity, and Story Work. Writing and Art Journaling are key elements of her process.