Thursday, February 10, 2011

Some thoughts on grief

I have never lost anyone close to me. I've been to a handful of funerals, but mostly when I was too young to be sad, though old enough to understand I was supposed to be. The anniversary of the death of John's grandfather recently passed. John's description of the moment--his being there, being alive, and then suddenly, not--was excruciating. Witnessing grief fills me with terror and a kind of impossible empathy. I sob in pre-mourning, in anticipation of knowing. My greatest fear is my mother dying. I fear it far more than my own death, though I couldn't choose to die before her; she wouldn't allow it. Though my father's death would also destroy me, I never think about it; it doesn't seem like a real possibility. It's distant and abstract. But my mother's life feels precarious and fragile, and impossibly precious. I'm almost angry that she's not more protective of it, that she goes about living her life as though it's her own. I'm sure I'd feel the same way about a child, if I had one. What right have you to go and die?

I had a scary dream last night that I was walking across a kind of ice field while talking to my mom on the phone. Then I could feel and hear the ice begin to crack and shift, and I got sucked down into the swirling, freezing water underneath. I was still holding the phone, but I was stunned, or the wind knocked out of me, and I couldn't speak to tell her what was happening. I lost my grip on the phone, and the current pulled me farther and farther away from it. I was less upset about the possibility of drowning than about losing my phone--that is, having no way to reach her.

Self-defense courses for women got big in the '80s. Are there similar classes to help people prepare for the death of their loved ones? Or is that just psychoanalysis? (Here's another one for my future analyst, and/or Reb: Why do I have so many dreams about my phone?)


  1. Whenever I find myself crying, it usually involves these kinds of thoughts about my parents. What you describe is completely familiar, but with me it's flipped--I worry more about my dad than my mom. Maybe it's something to do with being the same-sex parent (though in my dad's case it definitely has a lot to do with his being a smoker).

    I've been wanting to read Thich Nhat Hanh's "No Death, No Fear", but I'm sort of afraid to. In any case it might be the closest thing to a grief self-defense course.

  2. Yeah, my mother has lupus.

    I just looked that up -- I fear it wouldn't help me. I'm not worried about what will happen to her when she dies, I'm worried about what will happen to *me*! (My grief would be selfish.) It's sort of a fear of having to truly be an adult, and truly independent, not having this person who would do anything for me.

    Then there's the much subtler form of grief that happens when your parents get old and you have to take care of them, instead of them taking care of you.

  3. Hi Elisa - Most people manage to survive grief. Unless you're very brittle (which you don't seem to be, from your blog writing), then you can know that you'll probably survive it too. I am envious of people who get through most of life not thinking about it, who live as if they were going to be alive forever. Then again, I've known people who've been diagnosed with diseases that they knew would kill them, who found a great deal of meaning in knowing they would die soon. So who knows.

    I was hoping I could include the dream paragraph in the Annandale Dream Gazette.

    Take care.

  4. Around this time last year, an acquaintance's mother died and I wondered my god, how does she get through every day? It literally made my stomach hurt, thinking about it.

    Then in one of those weird twists of fate, my own mother died after a month and a half of illness last spring. I found out the answer to that question: You just do.

    I won't deny there is tremendous pain, fear, anger and self-pity. But for me, at least, there's some small help in knowing that the world is a big place that forever carries on -- an immortality of sorts. And it has room for me to catch up with it at my own pace, some to much of the time.

  5. My dad died in 1999 -- he committed suicide. He was 73. My mom died in 2009, at age 85, of various accumulating health problems though with Alzheimer's underlying all of them.

    I found that on the one hand, there was no way I could have adequately prepared myself for what happened with either of them (even, in the case of my mom, knowing that she was dying months before her life ended); and, on the other hand, that as huge and incomprehensible a thing as each of their deaths was, I was able to find my way through the aftermath of it.

    The most important piece of advice I got from anyone was to let it (the grieving process, or however you want to put it) take as long as it needed -- there's not really any snapping out of it or getting "past" it. It's there.

    I found, after each of them died, that I felt pretty much everything I could possibly imagine feeling, the full capacity of human feeling, at one time or another during the following months, and, really, even now.

    It never entirely goes away, I think, though over time the vastness and terror of it gradually recedes. Death is huge, but so is life.

    Thank you for posting this.

  6. Erin, Lyle, thanks to both of you! Virtual hugs.

  7. I lost four very pivotal people in my life in the course of one year. It was horrible, and numbing finally. The loss of them works into most everything I do creatively, which doesn't help or anything but it does keep me working out my feelings about it. When you're close to someone and they die--all the cliches are probably true. A part of you dies with them, etc. My maternal grandmother's death was particularly brutal to go through. It was the death of my childhood.

  8. My poems are already all about death, if only on a subconscious level.

    I suppose as an artist there's always that tiny grim consolation that pain = material. I do think my best writing has come out of misery.

  9. This description of pre-grief is very familiar to me. I know the death of anyone truly close to me will wreck me, so I try to avoid thinking about it, which is kind of hard when my dad insists on talking to me about the will he's making out, etc.

    The person I felt most acutely this way about for a long time was my brother, who I assumed for a long time would be dying young based on his lifestyle. He finally seems to be stabilizing some, though.

  10. I've always had slight misgivings about whether I'd grieve _interestingly_ -- it seems like the ultimate test, people who grieve tediously are demonstrating, rather dramatically, their limited worth...

  11. People who grieve tediously? What does that mean?

  12. Sarang, grief makes its own rules. It is not for us to judge how another experiences it and it is indeed different for each person.

    Elisa, you are lucky to have avoided this peculiar pain. I hope your mother survives her lupus and I know when the time comes you will do the right thing.


  13. Sarang, I'm also curious what you mean by "interestingly" and "tediously" in this context. Can you explain?

    Thanks R ~ xo

  14. It's re the idea of pain as material, not nec. for _art_ but for some sort of development, you know, "what doesn't kill you [in this case by killing someone else] leaves you stronger." To the extent that it is possible to think of people/oeuvres as being interesting/tedious it is possible to ask whether some drastic event changed them for the better/worse. Why _drastic_ events? Because, if you think of your sensibility as run-of-the-mill and static, the non-drastic events have already failed. To grieve tediously is to respond predictably to loss without saying or thinking anything original; I think this is entirely possible. I'm not saying that every loss that fails to generate interesting thoughts or plans or at least a vocation to feed starving children or imprison drunks is _primarily_ a missed opportunity, but that is one aspect of it.

    (Sorry I'm late replying, been traveling.)

  15. Elisa, this post and the thoughtful responses moved me deeply. I can entirely relate to your "pre-mourning" of a parent's death: for years I had dreams where I'd wake up crying because I'd "experienced" my mom or dad dying.

    And with my father's recent death in October, I was bluntly initiated into the Grief Club. It's just as Erin said: for years you wonder how others carry on after such as loss, and then you find out that you just do.

    You put one foot in front of the other, plodding through a landscape of sorrow, self-pity and abandonment. The finality of it all makes you angry. Why have you been put in this position?

    The longer you sit with your loss, the landscape becomes more nuanced. The mystery of death becomes the mystery of life, of the thing that links us all. It's humbling to realize that the enormity of your struggle with your loss is not unique to you - passersby on the street all have such losses, whether past, present or future.

    Ultimately, gratitude is the balm. Gratitude for the time you shared with your loved one, for everything they gave you. And even gratitude for the harsh experience of losing them, because the "impossible empathy" you've felt for others in mourning becomes real and deep.

    I think most people, myself included, experience what Lyle described: the pain that never entirely leaves you, but does gradually ease. It becomes a patina on your heart.

    And as the flip side to Brian's comment, yes, something of you dies - or at least morphs into something new - with each loss, but at the same time, your beloved lives inside you forever. My dad's favorite expressions and jokes pop out of my mouth all the time. I hear his words in my voice and it's sweet and sad and comforting and part of the on-going tribute to his place in my soul.

  16. Katie, thanks so much for your comment -- one thing I can take from it is that I should try to practice that gratitude for my parents now, while they can experience it too, and at least minimize any regrets on my own part.

    What's funny is that I only see my parents about twice a year, since we don't live very close to each other (I hope to reduce the mileage between us at some point), but I feel just as close to them even when they're across the country, just knowing I can always reach them on short notice and they'll help me out with anything. I'm spoiled, really!

  17. i was sheltered from death too. until i wasn't. my mother committed suicide, my 21 year old son died in a car accident and a close friend was murdered and is buried next to my son. on the way to my friend's funeral my daughter commented that i "went crazy" when my son died. maybe she was afraid i would embarrass her at the funeral. a friend who was a therapist said of course she did. i don't know how i go on but i do. on the painful anniversaries and holidays where i have no choice but to feel it i wonder how i act normal the rest of the year when the grief is so huge.

  18. Donna, how can one not go crazy in the face of such grief? We'd like to believe tragedies of that magnitude aren't even possible. I'm sorry.