I choose life: a journey beyond childhood grief

When I look at pictures of myself from the first few years of my life I see a child who feels safe, loved, easy-going, curious and—above all else—joyful. I have a photo album that offers a poignantly graphic version of my story. Just after the snapshots documenting my third birthday in 1962, the pages fade to black. It’s not that my story ended, but that I abruptly lost my storyteller.

My parents, Morris & Pat, in college, circa 1955

My parents, who met and fell in love during college in Idaho, had been married for less than 7 years. My dad Morris was a pastor of a tiny church in Connecticut 1,400 miles from our nearest relatives, my mom Pat served as pianist-soloist-music director-program organizer-Sunday School teacher all rolled into one. A few weeks after the birth of my first sibling, our mother was diagnosed with an aggressive, untreatable cancer focused in her small intestine. Less than a month after open-and-shut exploratory surgery, the most important person in my life was dead of starvation, all nutrients hijacked to support a basketball-size tumor.

In the narrow window between diagnosis and death, my mom helped from her hospital bed to navigate a bewildering thicket of considerations before deciding to accept an offer from her older brother and his wife—3,000 miles away in Oregon—to adopt Faye Anne. Born in April, my new sister disappeared in May, my mom in June, a two-month-wide tornado that roared through my life and ripped half its contents away.

The year after my mom’s death, my dad remarried and we moved to a new home in another state, minimizing the evidence of our loss, forging a new family unit in which old frames of reference and familiar rituals dissolved, with strange procedures and stressful expectations taking their place. I do not remember talking much about my mom again during my childhood. The subject felt closed for discussion, an unspoken taboo that I would not dare to question for decades. I did not see my sister again until I was 12, and then only for a brief visit. 

Marva Lee & Faye Anne together again, 1971

Like many children who experience trauma, I recall little of this. I can draw an accurate floor plan of the house where I last saw my mom, even correctly placing furniture in the diagram. I can cite surprisingly lucid details about random, mundane events that happened two days before her death and in the week after the funeral. But my mother is nowhere to be found. She has been packed away in an unlabeled box in a memory-hoarder’s dangerously-cluttered attic.

These few paragraphs are a synopsis of the first volume in the library of my life. Elsewhere on the shelf is a book describing the debilitating weight of unresolved grief I carried for 30 years. There’s a dark memoir that details how to numb pain with drugs, alcohol, work and perfectionism. Another volume tracks my gradual loss of self-esteem and trust in my own instinct and intuition. The biggest tome in the set is all about trying to control what cannot be controlled. Recurring themes are sorrow, shame, self-destructiveness, anxiety, neediness, and over-compensation, all signs that hint at their roots in trauma.

I started deliberately shifting themes and writing a new story twenty years ago. I awakened in some kind of soul‐darkness one February morning in 1995 and lay there in the grip of an existential terror so paralyzing I wondered if I might already be en route to some hellish afterworld. Gradually the panic began to give way to resignation and I became aware of a tiny light in my field of awareness. I understood that the light represented what remained of my once‐indomitable and radiant spirit. I suddenly saw with dramatic clarity that to continue on the same trajectory was a form of slow suicide. I recognized that I had the power to choose whether to extinguish my light or nurture it back to full illumination.

Three words came into my mind that morning and rang like a bell that continues to reverberate in my consciousness two decades later: I choose life.

My life is now my most convincing evidence for the power to change one’s story. That I, who never expected to live past the age at which my mother died—28—am writing this at the age of 56 is more remarkable than I can say. By all rights I should have died a dozen times or more, taking into account the many dangerous circumstances in which I made crazy bets with death simply because I didn’t care if I lost.

Slowly and deliberately I began reinvesting in myself after emotional bankruptcy. I stopped daily self-medication with alcohol. I’m convinced the single most healing step I took was to find someone to listen and hold my story with me, an objective professional who shocked me by crying. “What happened to you,” she said, “was a tragedy.” Mute with surprise at this pronouncement, I felt something novel wash over me, not a familiar wave of shame, grief or despair, but something new: compassion for myself.

These are the redemptive messages my therapist Gail willingly repeated as often as necessary for me to finally begin believing them: You are lovable. You have the right to feel sad and angry. If you allow yourself to feel these emotions, you will not fall apart. Each of these were prisms of insight that allowed me to recolor my entire context.

Facet by facet, I slowly salvaged the diamond of self‐love. I was astounded by the relief of being allowed to speak my own truth, to tell my version of my life without excusing or defending. I believe it is possible to save someone’s life by the way you listen to their stories.

Just as my mental health challenges did not all arrive at once, but arose at intervals as my unaddressed grief and unfelt feelings accumulated, so my return to wholeness did not happen in some instantaneous turnaround. Five years of therapy, self-help groups, journaling, body work, anger work, forgiveness rituals, meditation, reconnection with nature, support from family and friends, and learning to trust myself and others again—all of these are part of the task of writing a new story that eventually brings me to this grace-filled chapter of my experience.

My life feels deeply purposeful these days, not because of what I’m doing, but because of who I’m being—my authentic self. After years of fear, mistrust and isolation, I am deeply embedded in my community in a variety of courageous ways, offering myself as living inspiration to others. This week I heard the news that I passed my state certification exam to serve as a peer support specialist, positioning me to give back to others the kind of non-judgmental, compassionate listening that encouraged my healing as I brought my story out into the light for transformation.

If I look at pictures of myself these days, I see a woman who feels safe, loved, easy-going, curious and—above all else—joyful.


18 thoughts on “I choose life: a journey beyond childhood grief

  1. Thank you for a hopeful and joyous story. I am so happy for your hard won peace and also want to thank you for all you did to. Help Greg and Kristi and our family. Be good to yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carol, what a joy to hear from you. It was such a privilege – and an important part of my healing journey – to be there for Greg and Kristi. Greg’s impact on my life cannot be forgotten!


  2. Is it the height of irony to say, What a beautiful story? I felt your pain, grief, confusion and numbness wash over, feeling my heart ache, but I had the supreme advantage of knowing this tale has a happy ending. 💞

    You are such an inspiration to me, dear lady. Your courage and strength amaze me yet it seems somehow as if deep inside, a tiny voice whispers, “But of course she rises from the ashes like a Phoenix born anew because her mission is to act as a Lighthouse, one who must know deep within her soul of the hazardous cliffs and dark seas. How else to be such a light to all of us searching souls hoping for guidance during our own dark and stormy nights?”

    So while I grieve for the little girl of long ago, I whisper “Hold on, for you are loved, and Thank You for the woman you soon will be.”

    I love you, dear soul sister. Thank you for sharing your story. 💞💖💞

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you is not enough. I am, however, sufficiently humbled to know it’s time to be still and take in what you offered. It made me cry, Chiron. I know you know. ❤️🙏🏼🎸


  3. Thank you for sharing. When I read your words they sounded like a friend of mine could have written it. Not that this was her story but tied to yours. Her name is Faye Anne and the similarity is definitely there. Sisters women full of love.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Thank You, Marva
        My heart feels the pain and tears of your journey. It is amazing of how you have now chosen life and your ministry will touch others and coach them in the process of healing.
        Your life story is Beautiful
        Thank You, again in sharing

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Marva – what exquisite sharing and telling. I feel three strong conections to your story: 1) it took a holistic osteopath in London to tell me I was carrying an immense amount of unresolved grief, 2) it took my London therapist to introduce me to the little girl that is me – she told me “write this down: ‘compassion for the little girl that is me'” – and life would never be the same, and 3) when my therapist here in KC told me to repeat after her “I am good” I simply couldn’t because I hadn’t yet learned it was true. I know the truth now. So from one warrior, one bodhisattva to another I say I’m glad you choose life.


  5. Marva, I hope this gets submitted. My comment 2 days ago didn’t but I saved it so I will retrieve it and resend it. Wonderful inspiring fabulous blog! also send you two emails that bounced. I’ll fix that. Much love and hugs, Gail

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Here is the comment that didn’t get posted the other night:
    Marva, reading your story here in its condensed form was a trip down memory lane for me. Your description is so poignant and moving, as was being with you during part of your healing journey. I was so touched that you mentioned me. Yes, I cried with you. It was an honor to witness and comfort you in your pain. You receive and magnify the encouragement and love given to you, Marva. And you write your personal story so beautifully without mincing the tremendous loss you experienced, proving that full healing is possible. So thank you–for having the courage to choose life and keep choosing growth, for writing and lighting the way for others. This is so right that you are now being a peer support since you inspire us all. Much love and hugs, dear Marva.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Scars of Our Mothers – Her Odyssey

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