birthdays, rivers, and cemeteries

Writing without the deeply personal is not the whole story of grief. To give the whole story, to give as many handholds as possible in the steep climb of grief, we need to hear personal stories. Each Friday, I’ll post something from my own experience of grief and love. It’s an inside look at love, at grief, at life.

This week, in honor of both Matt’s and my birthdays – we were born 350 days apart – a post I wrote the first or second birthday season after he died.


Eight years ago, I spent my birthday at the cemetery; Matt was away on a yearly retreat. I’ve always loved old cemeteries, so this was not out of character.

I loved wandering around, wondering about all the people, their stories, their lives, trying to figure out who is related to whom, and by what routes.  Reading so much in the simple names and dates: the sea captain who seems to have married several sisters, each one in turn, as one after another of them died; the wives who appear to have died in childbirth; the sons and daughters whose death dates far precede their parents; connecting birth and death dates to historical events, guessing as to what was going on.

Conjuring stories is fun for me, and cemeteries are full of story.

Seven years ago, it rained for two weeks solid, between Matt’s and my birthdays. We planned a camping trip for his birthday, but found our usual campsites washed out by the rain.

We spent the night in a hotel, and drove out to the river in the morning. We set up camp beside the river, already fast and flooded from the rain. We made camp breakfast, which includes an insane amount of food, as he didn’t like to have leftovers to pack back out.

As we sat by the fire, eating breakfast and reading his birthday books, the river rose.

In the few hours we were there, it split the banks, turned into waterfalls and rapids, devoured rocks that were tall stepping stones when we’d arrived.

Watching from the banks, it was so beautiful – dangerous, amazing.

Matt loved rivers. He needed them. Most of our adventures included rivers of some kind, from the very first place he took me from his childhood, to the Colorado, the Swift, the Rainbow, the Mississippi. Water was his element.

It was our element.

The river where he died was our sanctuary; it was refuge from the stresses of living in a populated world

We went there at least twice a month together, and he went several times a week on his own. The river was our place. A substitute for the larger, wilder rivers we would get to as we could.

The spring and early summer of 2009 were some of the wettest on record. July 12th was the first dry sunny day in nearly 6 solid weeks of rain. Our own home river was flooded, fast, dangerous and amazing, though we had no idea of that until it was too late.

Rivers have played such an important part in our lives – his, mine, ours. My interest in wandering quiet, still places, looking for story and thinking of death has always been such a big part of me. Birthdays at the river, together, or in our different quiet spheres alone – all normal, in that life we had.

And it occurs to me this morning, as I think about our birthdays past: the river has always been beside us, and I have always been walking in cemeteries, alone.


grief support that doesn't suckHow about you? How have birthdays – yours or your person’s changed since their death? Let us know in the comments.