Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Notes on Grief: Ten Years of Running Comfort

Notes on Grief: Ten Years of Running Comfort

I got up with my head sore and my mouth dry from wanting.  The first day of summer and children who needed direction.  In a time of constant stimulation, action, and engagement, learning to be still and be is a skill that must be acquired this summer, I think to myself.  But perhaps not today, not today.  “Today is Ami’s 10 year anniversary,” Joe pipes up.  I stare at him, blankly registering his entire face.  And his mouth forming the words.  I pull my robe tighter and nod.  Then I go and sit down, here, at my desk.  Where among all the pages, and papers and glue sticks and tacks, I have my mother’s picture, framed and looking at me with a serenity she always displayed in life…even to her death, around 11 am on this day ten years ago. 

These are my notes on grief…and on comfort.  Because chances are you will be at both ends of this scale at some point and there is nothing of ease about it.  I could tell you so many things about her, my mother, her humor, her quiet, her reticence and her deep well of love and abiding faith.  But some of those are mine, and I’m not prepared to share them.  Some of them belong to my children who never got to know her and the stories I tell are proprietorially theirs.  I trust though, that you are able and willing to read between and under the lines that shape these words and understand the devotion of them reveals a character worth the trouble and we can leave it at that for now.  

The day my mother died, it was fine outside.  Lovely, even, I would say.  She’d had a hard time of it.  She was weak and in mighty pain.  And then the end came quietly, and even so it was too fast.  I knew the end was near.  I was not prepared for it.   There will never be a time when you will be prepared for the death of someone you love.  Everything before it and after it will be a matter of survival.  Because after my mother died, I had nowhere I knew I could be.  Getting up was difficult; acknowledging the day, ghastly.  Nothing made sense and then I had my father whose own downward spiral began as my mother's life ended.  Just placing one foot in front of the other seemed painful.  Because, I reasoned, who would go before me?  Who would make sure my way was clear?  I did not recognize what it meant to have your heart beat for someone else.

I used to wear a bit of black ribbon with a butterfly pin on it.  I wore it every day for a year.  It was my public mourning.  A tradition that we as a society have done away with now.  Mourning black allowed the wearer to retrace the story of their loss with an audience prepared to hear it.  The repetition did good—it allowed you to fold it into yourself to carry with you.  Without the ability to “mourn authentically” those who feel the need to hide their loss from a world not ready for it can end up carrying their grief in ways that only hollow and threaten to swallow them whole.  I wonder sometimes about this resistance to grief.  Is it because of our necessary preoccupation with life?  Our ridiculous insistence on staying young?  A combination of the two?    We live in a society where we will avoid grief—where it needs to be “overcome” and we need to stand strong.  But doing this comes to our detriment, because without allowing for grief, we refuse to allow ourselves to fully embrace what life is and what it has to offer.  The points that follow are my own ideas about how to deal with this—grief and the comfort that can be had because death is the one immutable fact we all share.  Even birth cannot be certain, but death, the closing chapter to this life, is. 

  • Do not say “I know how you feel.”  Unless you truly, actually do.  Grief is an individual process, there is no one size fits all.  Close your eyes and imagine someone who is dear to you—not your child, because that fits into an entire other apotheosis of sorrow—and imagine them: their face, their features, the turn of a lip, the strength of a hand, imagine them speaking, at rest, at work, in passion and in silence.  Open your eyes.  And think of them gone.  That wreckage?  That colossal void?  That unspeakable is where this person must walk.  If you do not know what that is, do not say you do.

  • Do talk about your loved ones.  Just because grief is there doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear about your mother’s latest joke, or your fight with her.  Life continues on, and I am continuing with it.   I want to be in your life.  So don’t hide the parts that you think might hurt.  For a long while, every single thing will.  I’ll let you know if I can’t hear it.

  • Do not say, “Get over it.”  Unless the person in question is in the blue deep sea of depression or self-destruction that requires action, intervention and forcible movement.  Even then, the words should not be said by you, they should be said differently, in a controlled setting, by a clinician who is far enough removed from this person to offer sternness, and educated enough to provide the framework in which healing can take place.

  • Do offer to listen and to remember.  I’m an only child.  No one shares the history of my mother with me.  I have a friend who recognized that early on, called me daily afterwards and remembers to call every year and offer her arm on which to lean.  My mother died the same time Ronald Reagan was laid to rest.  It was difficult to know that someone who figured so largely in my world would remain anonymous to so many still in it.  Recognizing that this person mattered if only to the person you care for means something significant. 

  • Do not stay silent.  Even if this is difficult, the closer you are, the more your friend/family will need you.  Even if you do not know what to say, stay in the stillness with the grief and know that you will be walking this path too, it is an opportunity to learn and an absolute marker of growing up.  Walk into that dark space and see what you can do to lighten it. 

  • Do not be presumptuous.  A colleague of mine when I was teaching in Connecticut, told our mutual doctor about my mother’s death and did not tell me of a colleague’s passing citing that she “felt it would be too hard for” me and that she thought it would be better if I didn’t know.  I still marvel at the arrogance of this thinking.  It isn’t your job to determine how grief is handled, it is just yours to be witness to it.  Allow your friend to make this decision on her own; she’ll tell you if she needs you to step in on her behalf. 

  • Do help with everyday tasks.  Shining shoes for a funeral, making sure suits are dry cleaned or flowers are received, these are immediate tasks that need to happen.  Making sure oil is plentiful in the heater, that the house is cleaned regularly, these are all mundane tasks that need to happen yet may be difficult for your friend to do.  Arranging food for a family, not just for the interim but after a break, 2 months later would be welcome when getting out of bed seems difficult enough to contemplate. 

  • Do not change anything, not a rug or a picture.  Once, while I was away in a crisis with my father, someone had the front landscaping redone of my home and had my silly, funny doormat thrown out—I came home to something I didn’t ask for or recognize.  So much is out of control in the aftermath of grief; leave the large changes for later when personal input can be offered. This environment is a safe space, and often, the last one you remember your loved one in, changes need to come from within not from an outside party.

  • Do not compare losses.  My husband’s friend’s wife told me over dinner a year or two later that she knew of a young girl who had just lost her father, she looked at me and told me that she thought this child had suffered more over the loss of her father than I could have possibly felt as an adult with the death of my mother.  And then proceeded to discuss the loss of their beloved dog.  I remember only tightening my hold on my glass and looking at a scabbed cuticle.  Everyone has loss.  All of them are important.  There is no need to compare.  And no need to assume.  There is only the necessary in listening and allowing that story of loss resonate with you so that it builds in you the strength to face your own losses with grace.

After my husband left this morning and I was faced with children all day on their first day of summer break, bored and irritated only minutes after breakfast…I snapped.  And again.  And once more.  They were confused, hearing a downbeat in my voice that they were not used to.  And my oldest, the sincere said, “I’m sorry Mommy.  I didn’t know what it meant, the anniversary.”  These three souls looked so solemn and serious.  Each determined to help but not knowing at all what to do beyond asking for the needful for themselves.  “How can I help?” would never even occur to be asked.  So I tell them, I’m just sad today and I ask for their patience, give them choices for what we can do and plead for their understanding that I just can.not. today.  Just today.  Nonetheless, we go to a museum, and I will up some enthusiasm, take a photo for memory and give a death-lock stare to the docent who grabs Jake when he suicide sprints to another part of the room.  “He’s not supposed to run.”  “Perhaps you can then say that rather than actually putting your hands on him?”  Subtlety is not going to be a strength today.  He backs away.  It’s a good decision.  But I must tell you that the minutes tick by, I feel heavy.  Tired and swollen.  Pounding pressure that no matter of drug could alleviate and I’m happy, so thrilled when the brothers three decide they’ve had enough and want to go home. 

I clean hands, wipe a brow, make lunch and settle them in.  And I try to just stay still and remember without the benefit of albums or film, the time when my brow was wiped and food was made, and my audience was of a woman for whom my words were the first and last of anything she wanted to hear.  And things begin to tumble away.  The rush of sorrow is knife edged and as sharp.  Hours pass and then I can hear them, louder and louder, fighting and rushing and pushing and forcing me back into the present and far away from my mother’s memory.  I found myself hearing their voices as if an echo—and I covered my head with my hands to please be drowned out.  My youngest came to me and put his hand in the crook of my elbow and just looked.  “I miss my mom,” I say.  “I know.”  Silence.  The little hand begins to worry the skin there, and he whispers, “But you are a mommy now.”  I swallow and nod.  “So come on, then.  We’re waiting for you.”  I stand unsteady and begin, one step into the sunshine to the combined laughter that seems directly sent from heaven itself.

"Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try and find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us.It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; he doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive out former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain."Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Absent Love


Jennifer Gregorio Alberto said...

Great Blog! My father dies of cancer 6 years ago. These thoughts ring true to me and to anyone who has lost a loved one.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written and rings true to me as well from my father's passing.

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