Toni Lepeska is a Memphis journalist, essayist and contributing author to two books. She loves simple things – dazzlingly beautiful, blue skies, big dogs suitable for tight hugs, and a man who married her at a precarious time in her life.
But life has been anything but simple or ordinary for Toni.
She keeps her baby teeth in a lozenge tin on a bookshelf. That’s not just a quirky fact. You might call it an early indication of how Toni would grieve the death of her parents.
As a girl growing up poor in north Mississippi near Memphis, Tennessee, she never threw away the teeth. She did not discard them after growing up, either. All her life, Toni has held onto meaningful things. She also has held onto meaningful people – with all her might. And that can be an impossibly distressing problem when death enters the ring.
Society Doesn’t Want Us to Make a Fuss
You probably understand unconditional love and fierce attachment if death has taken a beloved parent. A good parent pours love on us and sees to our wellbeing and safety. The death of a parent can be like a hulking meteor plowing its way into our lives. Nothing is ever the same again. Someone who has always been there is not now. An ever-present love and sense of home vanishes with them.
Society by definition is about attachment. We live together. Depend on each other. We form bonds. We learn this right out of the womb. But when death rips away our first devotion, our parents, we are then expected to resume life and “get over” our grief. Or at least not make a fuss over it. After all, they were expected to die first. In many cases they were old. Maybe they were sick. All these facts are supposed to trump our distress over their absence.
Toni was among the misinformed
In her 20s and 30s, she thought grief was a linear process that required simple steps for healing. At 25, she’d read all about the five stages of grief as a widower’s girlfriend. She’d witnessed the raw heartache of dozens and dozens of grieving people as a newspaper obituary writer and then as a crime reporter. She’d stood by yellow police tape, surprised how often people wanted to talk about their loss. They wailed about dead mothers, brothers and husbands.
Her heart went out to them. She was a good listener. She was schooled in grief in one sense, but observing grief and experiencing grief are two entirely different things.
Death Personalized: The Loss of a Father
Toni was at the Wal-Mart in the Memphis suburb of Collierville, Tenn., when one meteoric event would change her life and her perspective forever.
Her mother phoned her. Come home. Your dad has had a seizure.
Toni raced across the state line and onto a two-lane Mississippi road to save her father. The drive was 12 minutes.
She was puzzled to find medics mulling about the yard as if nothing important was happening. She stepped into the house. Her dad’s body was in the hallway. A white sheet covered him from head-to-toe.
Toni thought she knew what loss and grief were all about. The crime scenes. The interviews. Pet death. Boyfriend break-ups. A favorite aunt’s demise after Alzheimer’s disease. But she did not know the depth of loss until the day her daddy died in 2006.
Toni became her mother’s primary caregiver, a role she welcomed as a responsible, loving daughter. But it was out of ignorance. She had no idea how difficult the next three years would be. She’d repeat to herself, “I want my life back,” but the life with a comforting and guiding mother and a protective, fun-loving father was gone, and she could not bring it back.
Trying to Fill the Hole Death Created
A single girl of 39, she immediately turned to a new romance to regain a sense of security. ‘Course, she did not realize at the time that her driving motive was to feel safe. Who better to make her feel safe than a cop boyfriend?
We may try many things to fill the aching hole created by the death of a parent. Careers. Parenting. Food. Shopping. DYI projects. We may dive for cover among family, friends or a church community, or, like Toni, we may head into romance. Yet, we can still come up short.
We’re struggling to find our way. Grief demands that we chart a path through it, but we want to go around it.
Toni thought the providence of God was at play. She thought the Lord had given her “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning.” Her lifelong desire to marry was going to happen in the middle of a disaster.
But then it did not happen. The end came a week after the one-year anniversary of her dad’s death. As if her heart was not broken enough.
Toni got mad at God. Screaming mad. She could not know while she was shaking her fist in the Creator’s face that in a few months she would meet another man, and before another year passed, she would be in the right place mentally and emotionally to build a healthy relationship.
They married in March 2009. Toni felt like a failure at every turn. The pressures of a trying to be a good reporter, a new wife, and an attentive caregiver, all the while fighting a continuing battle with a chronic illness of her own, were huge. Mediocrity was unsatisfying and stressful. The situation climaxed in July 2009. Her mother fell and broke her hip, and 11 days later, she died.
Toni inherited 13 acres, a cluttered house, one blind miniature pony and 15 cats. She had a husband. She had her own home and her childhood home. But she felt like an orphan.
That’s where the baby teeth collection comes into play. Toni’s lifelong attachment to the stuff of memories reached its pinnacle after her parents died.
Clinging to a Parent’s Belongings
Toni was the executor. She was the daughter. She was eldest. She was supposed to clean out the house and sheds, full of 36 years of things her parents had accumulated. Society expects the cleanout to take weeks, maybe months. But she was frozen. Getting rid of her parents’ things felt like getting rid of them.
How was she ever going to accomplish her task? She wasn’t getting anything done. How was she going to “let go” or “move forward”? On one hand, she was busy learning to be a wife, but on the other, she was submerging herself in the past at her parents’ home, sorting through their things as she sorted through a tangle of grief emotions. She barely tossed anything out.
It was at this point that Toni Lepeska’s personal life would begin to merge with her professional writing life in a way she had never imagined.
The Launch of a Writing Career
Toni’s writing career started off in a bizarre place – in high school chemistry class.
She had not signed up for chemistry. Science was not her thing, but teachers in the small, rural school put her in the class anyway. Mrs. Tables was a demanding teacher, more demanding than most in the school. Toni tried her best. And Mrs. Tables appreciated it. They shared a mutual respect for one another.
The following year, Toni was a senior who was clueless about her future, and graduation was eight months away. One morning, she wandered into Mrs. Tables’ room during a break in classes and told her about her problem.
“What do you like to do?” Mrs. Tables asked.
The answer spilled out in one instinctual moment. Toni could have told her she’d kept a diary since she was in third grade, indulged in poetry like many teenage girls do, and had enjoyed English assignments. But who makes a living writing?
Mrs. Tables looked up from her desk.
“What about journalism?”
Toni didn’t know what journalism was, but she was intrigued. She checked books out of the library (no such thing as Google then) and discovered journalists worked in television, radio, public relations and at newspapers. Newspapers. That sounded the least threatening. The idea of being on camera was terrifying but working as an inconspicuous writer with only her name attached to stories sounded possible. A year later, Toni Lepeska was a student at the University of Mississippi working for the campus newspaper. Her career got its start with Gannett in Jackson, Mississippi and included a temporary stint at USA Today in Washington, D.C. She then a returned to Memphis to work for The Commercial Appeal. Though she entertained thoughts of someday working for a magazine or for herself, she didn’t diverge from newspaper writing until several months after her mother died, 20 years after getting her journalism degree.
Pivoting to Writing Personal Stories
Toni’s favorite stories to pen had been of people rising above dreadful circumstances to beat the odds. Now, as a student in the classroom of grief, she was ready to begin writing about her own experiences and about what God was doing to bring her through the toughest years of her life.
She penned stories about the difficulty of discarding any of her parents’ belongings. She couldn’t stand the sensation of losing a piece of them as she gave away or threw away one of their belongings. She wanted to keep the home just as her parents had left it. She pulled out clothes, notebooks and jewelry, but then put the items right back where she’d found them. The result was the sense that her parents were still alive there. A cleanout session felt like a visit to see them.
Toni began to write a book, a memoir about trying to resurrect what she’d lost. She wrote about searching her childhood home for a connection with her parents. She wrote about trying to regain the sense of safety they’d given her. But her grief journey was still ongoing. She didn’t have an ending. Would she ever find another safe place like the one she’d lost?
She set aside the book to reach out to other grievers online and at in-person events.
Connection Offers Healing
God walked with Toni in that house, and very often, it felt like her parents did, too. The connection she felt as she sorted through their belongings was a huge part of finding a sense of healing. With an assist from her analytical nature, Toni also found perspectives that helped her process memories tied to emotions like regret, sadness, anger and fear.
She found more gratitude. More joy. More contentment.
Below are a few of the key components that allowed Toni to successfully navigate grief. She strives to encourage other adults who’ve lost their parents to adopt practices like these. They promise to foster healing within our unique loss and grief experiences.
- We cannot run from grief, ignore grief or deny grief access. We meticulously go through it and experience each feeling, thought and memory, no matter how big or small. That spans the regret over not being present at death and discarding artificial sweetener packets kept under the illusion Mom would return to use them.
- Each of us follow a unique timeline to a sense of healing. Society wants us to rush through – and we want to be finished with the pain already! We want to tick off a check list – “stage 3, complete.” We can influence the timeline, but we cannot dictate it.
- Grief is lonely because no one can exactly know what we are going through – except God. Talk to him. Listen for his replies. They offer divine friendship, comfort and guidance. He isn’t up there waiting to pounce on our shortcomings. He loves us, and in time, will offer perspectives to soothe our pained minds and broken hearts.
Toni found a new safe place. It still was not easy letting go of her childhood home, but she put it up for sale eight years after her mother’s death and sold it in the Spring of 2018. That same year, she won honorable mention in a category of the Writer’s Digest national contest for an essay based on the blog post, Can You Hear Me Now? Dusty Phone Reveals Dead Parents’ Message.
She currently works for herself. Her articles regularly appear in The Daily Memphian, which published articles in 2021 about the COVID-19 “grief pandemic” under Toni’s byline. In a few years, she hopes to finish telling her incredible story of survival in memoir form.
Your New Beginning
God parented Toni – and he is available to parent any of us at our asking. It takes time. We start with baby steps. We go backwards a lot. As we lean into God’s offer to serve as our protector, guide and friend, we discover our journey takes us closer to something more peaceful, comforting, enlightening and loving than that space death and grief blasted through our souls.
We learn to grow a new life around the old life. We still feel the loss and the pain – death anniversaries and holidays are huge triggers for Toni – but more and more, we think of the happy parts without getting ripped apart by the reality of absence.
You can remake your life as Toni did. Through words and photographs she shares, Toni wants to inspire you to believe in beautiful things again. To believe in life again.
Grief does not end. But neither does love. And, thank God, nothing is greater than love.