I read a few days ago in For Those Who Mourn that sorrow attends joy, the highs attends the lows. That’s not the way the author wrote it, but that’s what he meant. It’s the way it is. When you love someone and they are lost, a job is lost, a divorce occurs, it’s important and necessary and fully human to mourn.
But how can this be, I ask myself. How can I feel bereft after knowing for so many years that mom was ready and willing and that I was ready and willing. How can I be shocked that a person two months shy of 102 years old, could die so suddenly. Suddenly?
A few weeks before she died I wrote that I was ready to experience the grief and not just the anticipated grief. But I didn’t know. Not really. I thought I had been grieving for 15 years. Every time I was told she was going to die. Every time she had a stroke. When she was diagnosed with cancer and congestive heart failure. When a caregiver would find her comatose on the floor. I was prepared, dammit.
But I wasn’t. Are we ever prepared for grief? Or, is it simply ingrained in the fabric of life that we know instinctively how to grieve. If we are alive, we will experience loss and we will grieve. But it doesn’t feel instinctual. It feels hard. Like you’re expected to dance to a new tune you’ve never heard. It’s a different beat.
Or as one books says, “It is as though we leave forever a room where we have been comfortable and functioning well, and enter a new room. Some of the furnishings are there, and some of the same people, but the room is different nonetheless and requires a whole new adaptation from us, and probably, from the others in the room with us.” (Healing After Loss, Daily Meditations)
It’s an art, knowing how to grieve. “Don’t move on too quickly,” they say. “Allow time for the process and if you’ve lost a spouse, in particular, don’t make rash decisions.” “Give yourself permission to take as long as you need,” they say. But what does that mean?
When I lost my father, I was a baby. Mom moved on so quickly that within three months we were into a new life, in a new city, with a new “father.” She panicked and made rash decisions that had profound consequences. But she didn’t feel she could take the time to grieve. She had two children to raise and someone came along who said he would help her. So, jump ship.
We weren’t allowed to attend the funeral. Neither of us were given an opportunity to grieve, although I was told many times that “Brother remembered his father,…you were just a baby,” as if that somehow that made the loss of my father more tolerable. After I grew up I grieved for my father and in the last ten years, mom often talked about him, making me realize that she never fully grieved the loss.
When I was 15, my dear neighbor, Nelda, the one who invited me on their family vacations, had me babysit their children, and loved me, died of cancer. I didn’t visit her when she was dying. I couldn’t face it. I hid in the back seat of the car during her funeral.
When I was 18 a former girlfriend was murdered by a young sick priest. She was the only child of an older couple. How did they recover? I don’t know because I didn’t attend the funeral or ever talk to them. That same year my finance got another girl pregnant just months before our marriage. I buried my grief but wondered if her father was going to be present at our wedding.
When I was 20, my father-in-law died of a heart attack while skiing in Lake Tahoe, just weeks after he retired as a pharmacist. He was 46. We took a PSA flight from San Diego to somewhere near Lake Tahoe and picked up a rental car. I do not remember anything else after that–not the funeral or the burial at Rosecrans Cemetery in San Diego. My SIL talks about the service and how we stood around his casket and held hands and talked about the “energy” flowing, but I have no memory of any of it.
No one counseled me or talked to me about grief. My young husband never cried, but simply took on the role of the oldest son while his mother came undone. MIL and my SIL took a trip to Europe for three months, and that helped us all find our equilibrium. But recently SIL told me that the trip was tedious and painful as they drove through Europe in a new Jaguar.
My Grannyma died when I was 24. I hadn’t seen her in a couple of years because I was too busy and “I wanted to remember her the way she was.” Bottom line, I was tired of grieving. I avoided it.
But it’s not possible to avoid grief. It’s the warp to the weave.
The year before my Grannyma died I went off the birth control pill. Over the next couple of years, I learned that I was infertile. My FIL and doctor had assured me that 5 mg of birth control, taken for four years straight, would not be a problem. Now they give women .5 mg.
I’m not sure when I knew to grieve, but it started after a doctor told me I would need a fertility drug, which I refused. My husband and I divorced when I was 27, and a year later I learned that he was to have another child with another woman.
Sometimes it felt like it was too much to assimilate. But I knew that when mom died I would not numb out. I knew I would face it. I thought, in fact, that it would be straightforward. But I was shocked to discover how empty it feels without her, that I would so miss her presence, her words, her touch, her irritating and excruciating needs, the pain of watching her pain, the wait, the interminable wait for her to make her transition.
Yesterday I knew I couldn’t stay in the house trying to organize my desk that looks like several small explosions went off. I didn’t want to garden, or write, or photograph anything. I told Ben I was going to ride along while he went to paint a fence for a client (also a friend). The sprayer didn’t work, so I hand painted part of the fence while he fixed a latch and we talked with our friends and admired her garden.
From there we drove out into the valley to visit another prospective client. I stood outside the truck with our dog in the quiet spring air in the client’s apple orchard while Ben measured windows. I remembered when mom once worried about “all the trees are being cut down,” and I took her for a drive into this valley, called the Lower Valley, a broad expanse of Yakama Indian Reservation, upon which farmers and orchardists grow everything, including millions of trees. She was surprised and heartened by the view of all the trees, rolling hills and valley floor covered in trees.
After we returned home, Ben and I worked in the garden for a while and our neighbor friend came over and leaned over the fence and invited us for soup and homemade rolls and salad with her and her mom, who is visiting from Texas, and three of her children. It was a fine finish to the day.
I find ways to find joy in the midst of grief, which is really exactly what it’s all about. I didn’t know how to do it before, but mom gave me plenty of time to learn.
I don’t know who wants to read about the story of grief in one woman’s life. But isn’t it the story of all or our lives? Sometimes it feels like the protagonist of this story is gone. But not really. It is I.