Embodying Grief – A Conversation with Liz Tichenor

“Getting into my body has been such a crucial part of learning to live in grief. It’s not something that I can do just in my head. I can’t think my way out of this, I can’t work my way out of this. I have to embody it.”

– Liz Tichenor (Photo by Nathan Philips)

Liz Tichenor’s The Night Lake is a memoir of the author’s slide through grief after the suicide of her mother and the death of her baby son. The book is a starkly frank account of bereavement which does not fall back on imposing meaning on tragedy to make it more palatable. Liz – who is an Episcopalian priest – took the time to talk to me about her book, her process, and what the topography of grief looks like, seven years in.

VA: Liz, it’s wonderful to meet you. In reading The Night Lake, I was immersed in something I know nothing about and that absolutely terrifies me: the grief of losing a child. What was it that led you to start writing about your experience and at what point on your journey did that happen?

LT: A big part of my job is writing, but it’s writing in order to speak, to preach. And so pretty early on, in the mix of these deaths and the grieving that followed, I began in dribs and drabs to share little pieces of the story, in my preaching.

I did a lot of journaling early on: I had the sense that I needed to put this somewhere, the questions I was wrestling with and the images that were haunting me at night; the longing to understand or to have a reason, or to make meaning somehow out of these deaths, when there was maybe not any. I needed to put all that somewhere.

One of the things that I have heard a bunch of times is that the book is really raw and frank in describing the experience of grief and living in it. I think that is because I captured a lot of those ideas or experiences right as they were happening while there was no filter and in a time when I wasn’t writing it for anyone. I was writing to get it out of me.

I have not come across very many books that are really honest about grief. And in particular, there are parts of the Christian tradition that try to tie it all up with a nice bow; the parts that tell us that everything happens for a reason, or that this is all part of God’s plan, and we just don’t understand it. I just couldn’t buy that. And I certainly couldn’t teach that or preach that. And so, at a certain point, it felt like, okay, I need to offer something else out into the mix here.

VA: How has it been to finally release the book? Especially around this time of the anniversary of Fritz’s death?

LT: It’s been intense. While I was writing the book, for the first three or four drafts, I was still telling myself, you don’t ever have to show this to anybody. I was continuing to give myself the freedom of just writing for the sake of the process. Up to a certain point, if no one else read it, it would have been worth it, it would have been enough; the practice of writing the story was good in and of itself.

Liz holding her daughter Alice during her priest ordination in December 2012

In some ways, it felt like a shock to the system when the book actually came out. I thought, wait! People are going to read it! A week before the publication date, I was wondering whether it was too late to call all the warehouses and recall the thing. Which I didn’t really want to do, but I kind of wanted to do, because I felt really vulnerable.

The book is my attempt to open and invite a conversation of really showing up with our full, raw, unpolished, unfinished selves. And I didn’t know how that would be met. What has really surprised me is how ready people are to take that on, to step in and to do the hard things together and learn about compassion and how to show up for somebody.

VA: One of the things that struck me was the range of responses that you received from the people around you. The loss of a child is something most people are very afraid to look at, myself included. I think that invitation into to that uncomfortable place, to really share in this experience with you, has the effect of laying the ground for compassion. None of us are exempt from this; eventually everybody faces up to some kind of grief. And like you say, in deep grief, were truly authentic. How has this experience transformed your work as a minister?

LT: I was ordained as a priest three months after my mom died. So I had only really just begun the work of a priest just before Fritz died. It feels like there’s not a whole lot of before for me. I think back to when I was 25 and interning as a chaplain in the hospital in San Francisco, and, oh, boy, I was just really green. I didn’t know how to show up in the same way. And I think I was scared. I was scared of saying the wrong thing. I was scared of making it worse. My growing into being a priest has happened right alongside my unfolding and learning how to live with the losses that most of us are pretty sure we’ll never have to experience. I mean, I didn’t even consider the possibility of losing a child. That speaks to my privilege, and my access to health care.

A common phrase that I’m sure I heard and probably said before Fritz died is, ‘just as long as you keep them alive.’ I hear that a totally different way now. The humor of it is that it’s setting the bar really low. Yes, your house is a wreck and no, the children have not bathed and you haven’t helped them with homework, and God only knows what’s happening on Zoom right now… But it’s okay: they’re alive, they’re healthy, it’s fine. And when Fritz died, I realized that none of it’s a given. That being a parent was actually something bigger than that, or further beneath that. Even through the ways that life is completely beyond our control.

One very physical response to grief for Liz was running — above: completing a half marathon in Truckee in 2014. It was Liz’s second race after Fritz’s death, and just before she found out she was pregnant with Sam.

That is where I end up sitting with people in in their grief or in their fear. So much of it has to do with where we lose control: I didn’t expect my spouse to leave me, or I really thought my job would work out and now I’m fired. Or, I planned to have kids and I can’t. All these losses are tied up in the way we thought things were supposed to go, what we thought we had control over. What these two deaths forced me to reckon with was how to live and find some semblance of peace or wholeness or connection, even when I can’t control even this most basic thing of keeping my kid alive.

VA: You talk a lot about the body: the painful physical details of your mother’s suicide, the details of your own body in pregnancy and childbirth, of Fritz’s body how it felt. And then in experiencing transformation of the body through death and cremation, you remembered Mary witnessing Jesus’ crucifixion. It made me think of Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta’ – the image of a mother holding and lamenting the dead body of her child. It occurred to me that there is something in the way that women in particular experience corporeal reality and loss, and so also in the way that they hold the space for ritual.

LT: I love I love the connections that you’re drawing, I feel them deeply. One of the really painful realizations that grabbed my heart was when I read (my mother’s) coroner’s report and read that her pelvis had been crushed, and I thought, that held me, that was the space that I grew in, and now it’s not. And then, this other body that I grew and birthed that had been within me now also is in pieces. It’s a deeply painful thing to consider. But that pain has helped me to notice and pay attention to how much that is beyond the life in the world that I can see right here in front of me. That I am still contained within something that is more, something that is mothering, and that I also contain that.

Getting into my body has been such a crucial part of learning to live in grief. It’s not something that I can do just in my head. I can’t think my way out of this, I can’t work my way out of this. I have to embody it. And I still do, it’s still an unfolding thing for me.

We moved this past spring to a home that has a yard, so for the first time in a long time, I’ve had space to plant and to grow things. At the hardware store, one of the employees offered my kids sunflower kits, in little brown paper lunch bags. The kids were super excited – they had a little baggie of soil and a teeny little compostable pot for seeds. They each planted a couple of sunflower seeds, and they grew up and eventually they were getting pretty tall. So I started digging a little plot on the edge of our yard, and this is in the midst of all kinds of stress and the uncertainty of the pandemic and isolation. The kids hadn’t been in school or childcare for ages. As I jumped on the shovel, instead of hurling my weight on to it, and turning over the earth, for just this brief moment, what my mind saw was not me jumping on the shovel and digging, but my mom. I felt like I was in my mother’s muscle memory, digging. She was a huge gardener, always out digging stuff up and planting. For just a moment, I was able to step into her body or be contained in her, in planting these new seeds. It was such a gift.

Liz with Alice and Sam at Lake Tahoe

On the one hand, I think that our relationship with our bodies as women and in particular, as mothers is so loaded, so complicated; there’s so much bullshit that gets laid on about what shape we’re supposed to be and what color our hair is supposed to be. The work is excavating down beneath all of that. But I think that place of coming to really embody ourselves and our lives is necessary to find a way forward.

VA: How do you work with your own vulnerability being a priest and someone in a position of leadership?

LT: It’s a really tricky balance, and one that I think I’m still experimenting and exploring and learning. When I share vulnerably, my desire is not for the community to feel like they have to take care of me. Because I have a lot of really great support, I have amazing friends and family and, you know, therapists and a spiritual director. It’s important that they (the religious community) not be my therapist, that I’m not mixed, I’m not working my stuff out on them. That’s my responsibility to articulate and maintain.

And so sometimes when I share something vulnerable, a response may be one of trying to flip those roles and take care of me, and I get to say, thank you so much. I have really good support. I’m working on this here. The reason that I feel drawn to keep reaching for that kind of authenticity is because I see what it makes possible for people who are really hurting and seeking and wrestling. They are ready to be authentic in community and they just need that opening.

It changes how people are with me, but also with one another. Back in December, around Fritz’s birthday, I preached something related to that. There is a Zoom coffee hour right after the service so people can connect and share what’s going on. I was dealing with some technical issues, so I joined the zoom coffee a little bit late. And when I got in, I discovered that they were all sharing their own experiences of how people have shown up for them around difficult times, like death anniversaries or the birthdays of a loved one who’s died. I thought, this is why we make room for that to be a way that we come together.

VA: I love the subtitle of your book, the topography of grief. While reading, I felt like I was being led through a landscape, with low points and vantage points, darkness, light and moments of intense fog. Where do you find yourself now, within that landscape?

LT: There are still surprising turns or drop offs that catch me off guard. We’ve got these great regional parks out here – Tilden and Briones. They’re these great long, huge swaths of land: lots and lots of trails, ridges, hidden lakes and things. And it feels like one of those now in that I know the bounds of it. I know the contours of it, and I haven’t been on all of the trails, and I know there are still things that will call me up short and be just devastatingly difficult. But I also, I’ve been through the circuit enough times now that I’m no longer terrified that I’ll get stuck there. And that is a gift.

With her family at the shore of the ever-changing lake.

Just this last Saturday was another anniversary of Fritz’s death. And in some ways, it still gutted me. I used to be fearful that I would never get out, that I wouldn’t be able to get back to living and laughing and feeling good and not yelling at my family over nothing. All of that still happens. I have moved through the landscape enough times now that less of it surprises me, even if it’s still hard. And I’ve always made it through. And I can trust that now in a way that I didn’t, early on. I didn’t know if it was true. Because I don’t think it is always true. These losses do sometimes destroy people.

VA: What’s the difference between somebody moving through grief then, and somebody being destroyed by it?

LT: I don’t know. We had worked pretty hard to cultivate robust community over years. And those were the people who showed up without question in ways that were stunning and so beautiful. We also had to choose to respond to that. Sometimes the offer comes but if we don’t meet it, then it’s not going to be anything. There are probably as many ways through grief as there are people grieving; I don’t know that there’s a right way. But what I have observed in talking with a lot of people through big losses is that when we try to go it alone, it’s really, really hard. And that the vulnerability of inviting other people into that grief is a pretty tall order.

VA: Because grief is isolating. You use the image of a thick glass wall surrounding you. You could see who was out there and what was being offered to you, but it couldn’t get through. So what can what can penetrate that glass wall? What can get through?

LT: Yeah, I had some people who were just so persistent and tenacious. It was amazing to me that they would keep coming after me and not get frustrated or annoyed, or just think, I don’t want to bug her. Early on, it was really difficult to respond to any of it—I could receive it and appreciate it, but finding the words or the energy to say anything back or to try to articulate to someone else where I was, I didn’t have it in me a lot of days. And they kept coming after me in such a generous way. The community wouldn’t let me go.

VA: And how about the lake this beautiful, big, mysterious mass? Lake Tahoe, it’s always there in the background and right next to you. It’s deep and unfathomable. Can you say a little more about the lake and your decision to place it as a central theme in your book?

In some ways I wonder how differently all this would have unfolded if I had been somewhere else. For folks who haven’t been there, it’s just enormous. It’s so huge. The magnitude of it is stunning. And it’s changing hour by hour and day by day, as weather rolls in and out. It felt like the lake anchored me in its steadiness and consistency, living right on its edge and also spending time on these trails right along the side of it.

Lake Tahoe

I think it was a way of orienting me, of letting me always have a compass without needing to look at which direction I was going. Not that I needed to know necessarily which way was north. Being in such close relationship with the lake in those early days of grief helped me to have roots and know where I was and where I could be headed. This really fundamental level of being oriented on the earth was a gift.

Sometimes the lake is as smooth and calm as glass and you can be out there on a kayak and look down and see the ocean ripples in the sand 30 feet below this perfectly clear water. Other times I have been out there on waves that were so huge, I have actually been afraid for my life. It can do all of that, and on the same day, even. Its magnitude was helpful in putting me and my life in perspective; this lake had been doing this for almost forever. And it was going to keep doing this long, long, long after we’re all gone. That magnitude made it feel like I could approach it with, with all that I carried.

3 thoughts on “Embodying Grief – A Conversation with Liz Tichenor”

  1. Brave spirited woman. Love The description and photo of the lake and the honest sharing of grief ( esp as related to the sheer agonising territory) the body connections and the importance of community.

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