Mapping the Topography of Grief

An Interview With Liz Tichenor

Mockingbird / 5.11.21

Here is a condensed version of our interview with author and priest Liz Tichenor, from Issue 17 of The Mockingbird. You can snag a copy of the magazine here or subscribe here.

For all of the ways surprises can delight, they can also destabilize, frighten. Just like good news, bad news can arrive seemingly out of nowhere. The name lighting up your phone belongs to someone you haven’t heard from in a while, and you already know: The news is bad. Or maybe you’re the one making the call. Maybe you were there when it happened.

Liz Tichenor was there. When her son Fritz was five weeks old, she took him to the doctor, but despite his inconsolable crying, the physician on duty assured her he was fine. Later that night, however, and without warning, Fritz died from a rare case of urosepsis.

Tichenor was living on the shores of Lake Tahoe at the time, and in her new book, The Night Lake, she describes those days with fearless specificity.

But Fritz wasn’t the only death she was grieving. Sixteen months earlier, Tichenor’s mother, harrowed by alcoholism, had jumped from the fourth floor of a parking garage.

Tichenor was young then, only 29. She was a newly ordained Episcopal priest. And after a few weeks, she climbed into the pulpit and began to preach the good news.

The Night Lake is the story of grief studied hard through the lens of the gospel. It is a story of survival and of learning to live in a world where, it seems, nothing is guaranteed.

But it’s not the story you might expect. It’s not the story of a young woman losing her faith, nor is it the story of a priest whose beliefs offer pat answers. There are no obvious routes through the terrain of Tichenor’s experience, no fast lessons or simple recoveries.

But there is faith, hope, and plenty of love. There is a warmth too; where many might have retreated behind the walls of privacy, Liz has put her story into words. Her intention? That grieving readers would know: You do not suffer alone.

In December we had the privilege of chatting with Liz via Zoom. Tichenor offered generous responses and charitable amounts of laughter. And she demonstrated the quiet way that life may bring other surprises: moments of unexpected healing, community, or revelation amidst the hard toil of grief.

Mockingbird

Do you have any advice for what to say to somebody who’s grieving? Maybe there is nothing.

Liz Tichenor

I think there actually is. I think there are so many good things to say.

M

One I remember you wrote was, “I’m trying to understand. I’m trying to imagine.”

LT

That, to me, has been such a gift. I can remember vividly the times that friends told me that. I heard it just recently from my sister-in-law. You know, “It’s not the same. I haven’t lived it. But I’m trying to put myself there. I’m trying to imagine what that might be, and my heart is breaking in that.”

It’s not the same as saying, “I know just what you are going through.” My favorite awful example of that was when somebody asked about my kids, and I explained the shape of our family and our son we’d lost, and he said to me, “I know just what that feels like. My cat got really sick and almost died.” So your cat — and I love animals, and I’m totally in love with this puppy that we just got — but you’re saying that your cat almost died. That is actually not the same as my son who did die.

We should not say, “I know just what you feel,” even if it’s a really similar loss. But I think that the act of empathy, of choosing to go there and join someone when you don’t have to, is an incredible gift.

Some of the other offerings that I’ve received from people are things like saying his name, saying, “We are remembering Fritz. His life mattered.” People will reach out and just say, “I’m thinking about him.” Joining me in that work of remembering is such grace, honestly. To the extent that we can send one another love and not make meaning on someone else’s behalf.

Early, early on, I had people telling me, “This is gonna make you a much better priest.” [Laughs.] Maybe! Maybe it will! And the truth is that I think it has. It has transformed how I’m able to walk with people in desperate situations. But actually, they didn’t know that then, and I didn’t know that then. That was something to let unfold over time. Letting people come to the meaning on their own, how a loss or grief might transform them, is a good idea.

M

The subtitle of your book is A Young Priest Maps the Topography of Grief. It reminds me of exploring, of making your way through the unknown, and sussing out what’s real. That seems to be an important element of this book. It would be easy for a Christian author to write abstractly, but you consistently bring things back down to earth, to reality. Was that an intentional decision?

LT

Well, the Christian faith plays out in many, many different forms, as you know. But in the part of that world that I live in, among the most important aspects of our practice is this incarnate expression of faith. Faith happens not in our minds — I mean, yes, intellectual pursuit is important — but the ways we actually practice faith are rooted in our bodies and our bodies coming together.

We put out our hands and have a hunk of bread placed there that we will actually have to chew and swallow, or we lay hands in prayer and in blessing, or receive ashes physically on our foreheads. We express faith through a physical, embodied practice. And that was some of what I was trying to do in the book. Not to refute more dualistic or simply spiritualized expressions of what we know or what we imagine, but because I was thinking of our bodies on this Earth. This is where we can first and foremost begin to explore what is, what might be; this is where we are.

We can dream and imagine and look to mystics for what may come, but our bodies matter. And I think we have to start there if we’re going to then enter more fully into a spiritual realm. When we are grounded in our bodies, then we can be surprised by wonder or soul or mystery. And those things interact. They dovetail and weave in and out of each other, and those were some of the most unexpected and incredible parts of this exploration, I guess, how those thin places came to me. But it starts, I think, with the body.

M

It’s funny that you mention that. This issue of the magazine is all about the unexpected and the surprising. It’s not super intuitive, the idea of staying grounded and seeing where that takes you spiritually.

LT

It’s a stance of being rooted in where we are and at the same time remaining open to what we don’t know and not being overly confident that we understand everything or that we know how it’s going to play out.

M

In your book there’s an excellent section about Ash Wednesday. You write, “I looked into people’s eyes, and I told them whence they came and where they were headed. Reminding people that they’re going to die is an odd way to tell them you love them.” That is a fascinating idea. I wondered if you could talk a little more about that.

LT

That’s wisdom from a dear friend and mentor, Phil, who shows up throughout the book as my friend and as my priest.

I don’t think we do anyone any service by pretending that life is other than it is. By cleaning it up. There were so many moments in this process of losing both my mom and my son, when the societal encouragement was to make it as clean and as pretty and as not-death as you could possibly make death. And that is no help at all. But I understand why we do it.

You know, we have really lost our understanding of how to bury the dead, of how to walk together through that, and to let it be real. When our son died and we buried him, I was so newly a priest, and we weren’t in a cemetery. I had very little experience with funerals and burials, but I had this really wise mentor and friend guiding us to help us know how to do this.

In my mind, there’s a connection between the ashes of Ash Wednesday and the ashes of my son.

But so often, when you work with a funeral home, with the full-package deal, they take the ashes and they put the urn inside of a cement block that is sealed shut. Sometimes it’s spray-painted gold, and the hole in the ground is surrounded by AstroTurf. When I’ve led funerals as a priest, I have sometimes had to really fight with funeral workers at the cemetery. They want to do the whole thing for you. They don’t want dirt to be visible. They don’t want the family to see any of it. Often families will walk away with the ashes still above ground, and then the gravediggers come and put it in and close it. So you don’t even have to put your person in the ground.

With Fritz, I didn’t know what to do. But my mentor Phil taught me. Pouring my son’s ashes into this hole that my husband and I had dug was probably the most difficult thing that I will ever do.

Now, all these years later, I regard it as such a gift, because it was so real, because it was true. And as painful as it was, my God, I am glad that I did that myself. That was my job to do, and I’m glad that no one else did that for me; our community came around us and helped us bury him. Just about everybody who was there came and took a fistful of dirt and threw it in.

In a ritualized way, that’s what we’re doing together on Ash Wednesday. We’re saying, We are in these mortal bodies. We don’t know what’s going to come. But we’ve got stories. We’ve got hope. It’s beautiful, and we hang our hearts on that, hoping that there is more, that there is life, and it is good. And we know that we will die, that our time is limited, and we are in that together.

So we mark ourselves, physically, on our bodies. We mark ourselves with that reality. Receiving that and also offering that, I think, is probably one of the most intimate acts that I engage in as a priest.

A couple of years ago, when I was still serving at the church in Berkeley, there was a service where there was some mix-up. Usually, we use these little silver dishes, or pyxes, that would hold the ash — you hold that and stick the ash on somebody’s forehead — and somehow those were missing. I don’t know where they were. They didn’t get put out. And Phil and I were leading the service together. But we needed to figure it out, because it was time to do the imposition of ashes. People were ready and gathered. So on the fly we took the one little dish and shook some ash into our cupped palms. Cradling the ash, we began, one by one, putting it on people’s foreheads, saying, in essence, “You’re going to die; I love you.” It felt like all of what we do and what we’re about had been brought together in this one tender act.

M

In some ways, your story is unique, but in others it’s universal. Your openness and honesty here will be so beneficial to readers, because this is the stuff of real life.

Just yesterday one of my friends learned of a horrible, unexpected tragedy in her family.

LT

Oh my goodness. I am so sorry.

M

I immediately thought, I need to talk to Liz. Like, what should I do? It’s very rattling — again, just trying to imagine how she must be feeling.

LT

There’s an idea that brought a lot of clarity for me — that when tragedies happen, there are firefighters and there are builders. There are some people who are able to show up right when something terrible happens and know how to be present and offer support in that immediate grief; they’re the firefighters, and that is good and necessary.

I can imagine, I can try to imagine, what she is going through right now, and I bet it’s a lot of shock, especially in COVID, to not be able to be with people — it’s just terrible. It’s also going to be really hard for her in a month or in two months. In the coming month, she is going to get a deluge of cards in the mail, and that’ll be good. And then most people are going to go back to normal.

I feel like I have this team of people who have appointed themselves to be my builders; they either have really great memories, or they have it on their calendar, because they always text or call or send something on my son’s birthday, and on his death day, and then there are some people who just randomly text me and say, “I love you. I’m thinking about you.” It’s been seven years now, and they still do that, and I still need it. That’s something that I don’t feel like we learn or are taught until we’ve needed it and receive it from other people who either have needed it also or have gotten a tip-off.

One other thing is that you might send a message saying, “You don’t have to respond to this. I’m going to keep telling you I love you, letting you know that I’m praying for you, and you don’t have to respond at all.” There are people who, I don’t know how many times they’ve sent things to me, and I haven’t responded, and they still do it. I think, “I can’t believe that you’re still sending me this stuff.” But that’s such a gift.

M

You write quite often about visions. And you do it in a straightforward way — you know, This is what happened — and almost without noting that there’s anything strange about it. I find that very cool and fascinating. Would you share a little more about that, and what that’s like? Were visions particular to the time period of this book?

LT

The visions began in this time of grief and mystery and just not having really any idea where I was or what I would be or where I was going.

The experience of my son dying cracked me so wide open. It sounds silly to me now, but I never really considered that possibility — that my child would die — and so suddenly everything that I expected and could count on was just cracked wide open, and something about that made me more open to everything: to paying attention and to listening.

When things are what we expect them to be, it can be challenging to see what else is there.

And I will say that that kind of spiritual experience is not something that we talked about very much or engaged in my progressive Episcopal seminary education. We’d talk about, you know, mystics from many centuries ago, but not as a way of engaging with the holy now. And then it took me a lot of time, and a lot of work with my spiritual director, to get to a place where I felt like there was something real and something true there, that I could share more widely. Because it’s not something we talk about, at least not in the circles that I generally spend time in.

What I’ve found to be wonderful and so fascinating, though maybe not surprising, is that in sharing these experiences, I then suddenly receive other people’s stories in return.

I think a lot of people experience thin places or visions or hear truth in unconventional ways — however you want to talk about this kind of thing — encounters with the holy — and just don’t talk about it because they don’t want to sound like they’re off their rockers. That’s pretty weird. How do you know it’s real?

Well, I don’t know how I know. But there it was. And I’m grateful.

The Mockingbird magazine is available here.