I am crying right now, as I type this. I deeply miss my maternal grandmother. Still. She died 20 years ago, when I was 16.
Yet, I barely knew her.
To me, she was perfumed hugs, lipstick smudges on my cheeks, coca cola over ice, and strange little toasts in the pantry. She was gifts at Christmas, cream-colored leather seats in the old-school car, and fur coats. She was glamour, flashy eighties-style earrings, fabulous wallpaper from various redecorations through the decades, and heels clicking through the house. She was love, and smiles, and I am sobbing so hard right now I cannot see the words I am typing. I weep for the years she lost dying at age 62; I weep for myself, for the lost opportunity to know her as a woman, to know my place in history through her. I weep that she will never hug my children, or know my joy in raising them. I weep that I will never be in her physical presence again to feel the simple magic of one soul rubbing shoulders with another through simple, everyday activities. I weep that my imagination has washed away most of my memories, steadily over the years like waves, leaving behind only a few traces scattered like seashells upon the sand-like blanket of general impressions, while the most vivid memories sink to the unreachable depths of my brain.
I weep. I weep. I weep.
I have always blamed this on my lack of closure. She had surgery on her back, then died of a brain bleed a few days later. She passed very quickly. The funeral was closed casket. In an instant, her existence was relegated to my imagination. She was the first person close to me to die; I was completely inexperienced. So I gathered bits of her as the years passed, trying to reconstruct her in my mind: physical items like jewelry my aunts had passed on, the beaded string that hung from the light bulb in the coat closet, and a gray clutch that is falling apart. I hold on to these objects like letting even a single one go will mean further death to her memory, though I know this is false. Her memory resides in my heart, not in those things, but I wear her ring often just the same as if to channel her. I often dress up more than is necessary; this is my tribute to her memory. It may not have been something she did, but I remember her as a glamorous lady, and I feel close to her in this way.
In an episode of On Being about the myth of closure, Krista Tippett spoke with Pauline Boss, Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota, about the various ways in which people disappear, physically or emotionally, and the resulting grief for those around them. Ambiguous loss like this often leaves no opportunity for closure or resolution, so it results in complicated grief. Some believe that complicated grief requires psychiatric intervention; Boss believes that painful and illogical situations result in complicated grief, but that this is normal, not something we can expect (or need) to “fix.” This happens with caregivers for people with dementia or parents of children with severe autism, where the grief can go on for five or ten years sometimes. The affected person is physically there, but emotionally absent. As Tippett says, “It is this monumental struggle for people to peacefully inhabit this reality that this person they love is, as you said, there and not there.” We desperately want resolution, a way to draw thick black lines around our grief so that we can box it in, contain it, manage it. But the more we try to do this, the harder it becomes.
I found the lessons in this podcast to extend to traditional grief as well. Even when someone dies and it is not ambiguous, grief is not finite. We have collectively twisted Kübler-Ross’ research into the five stages of catastrophic news to be the five stages of grief or mourning, and they were never meant to be that (how this happened). We badly want to think that grief is linear, finite, and predictable, but it is not. “…human beings live with grief and, in fact, are able to live with grief. They don’t have to get over it. They don’t obsess with it five years down the road, but they occasionally remember and are sad, or go to the grave, or have some thoughts about the person who died. And this is normal. So, we now know that living with grief is more oscillations of up and down. And those ups and downs get farther apart over time, but they never completely go away, the downs of feeling blue, of feeling sad.”
The real trick is to manage these feelings. Definitely don’t isolate yourself. Boss says, “Sadness is treated with human connection.” For ambiguous loss, Boss says paradoxical thinking helps. “The only way to live with ambiguous loss is to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time…. Like with the physically missing, you say he is gone, he is probably dead, and maybe not. He might be coming back, or maybe not. It is the only way to lower the stress of living with this sort of situation. This does not come naturally to our culture, we are very binary about this. You are here or you are gone. But that really doesn’t fit many situations in reality.” With traditional grief, it seems like the two opposing ideas to hold in your mind are that I love this person and I want them in my life, but they are gone. They are with me, and gone, at the same time.
A friend of mine recently lost her son after a few incredibly short days in the NICU. She used Facebook a lot to share her grief, and I was so very proud of her. There is something in our culture that wants people to move on quickly, to not dwell on sad things, to choose happiness. I was proud of my friend for smacking this notion in the face. There is probably a very fine line between dwelling on loss and allowing those feelings without judgement (as therapists encourage you to do), but everyone has the right to feel as they wish and manage their pain in a way that is best for them. I truly hope my friend is not getting the message that she needs to move on or get over it; I hope she is getting the compassion she needs, for as long as she needs it.
“Your heart is broken now, but it will scar over in time. You will eventually come to appreciate that scar.” The pastor knew that Meghan did not believe her in that moment, but she also knew that Meghan would get there one day.
Meghan was in total disbelief. She had just had twins: Dominic lived and Maddie died six weeks later. “On July 28, 2004, my world stopped.” Meghan was beyond shattered; the only thing keeping her alive was her infant son. She clung to him, desperately needing him as much as he needed her. “I had to survive because of him. I’m not sure I would have survived without him.” She rested in bed watching Oprah and feeding him constantly–she smiles and says she thinks he learned to clap early because of this.
For two to three years, she “did not know what day it was.” She and her husband, Justin, joined a support group, but they could only stay for about a year. As new parents would join the group and share their stories, Meghan and Justin were thrust back into the acutely painful memories of their own loss, and it was just too much to bear. However, the friends they made there really helped them through this time, and they are friends with many of them now still, twelve years later.
I had no clue how to help my friend during this time. All my words and actions felt completely inadequate, and Meghan coped with the loss of Maddie in an unexpected way, to me. Over the years, she talked about Maddie occasionally, as a normal part of conversation. I remember many visits to the grave, Dominic complaining that Maddie was playing in heaven keeping him awake (thunder I think), and talking about Maddie as a constant member of the family. I was intensely curious about the decisions they had made in managing the pain of the loss of Maddie, and in their willingness to talk about her. Maddie was never a taboo topic in their home.
There is so much in our culture that doesn’t want people to dwell on “sad” things. We want to fix people’s problems with quick advice, turn frowns upside down, and the like. But to the person feeling this pain, it feels like a denial. Truly, how can we expect someone to have closure and move on from one of the most intensely and profoundly painful events one can experience?
Pauline Boss says, “…we don’t like suffering. It’s a more Eastern idea, that suffering is part of life. Our idea is that suffering is something you should get over – and as you say – cure it, or fix it, or find some solution for it….” I agree with this. We have no clue how to talk to a person who has experienced a tremendous loss in their life, to even accept the idea that this awful thing has happened and there is no perfect fix to make it all better. There are many lists of things NOT to say when speaking with a friend who has lost a child, a testament to all the ways in which we accidentally hurt our bereaved friends when trying to say something helpful. Yet none of those things involve talking about the one who has left us. Meghan showed me that it was good to talk about Maddie, good to remember, and not a topic to avoid, though avoid it I did out of my own awkwardness and fear of saying the wrong thing.
I will never forget Maddie’s funeral, watching the men of the family carry her tiny coffin through the church. Meghan says that the funeral was a complete blur, but she remembers friends bringing flowers for the coffin. That meant a lot to her. In the weeks that followed, visitors were sometimes difficult for her. She had no energy; she felt like it was all she could do to just breathe. She would sit and cry and feel like the visitor was uncomfortable, and it was just too much. It was often easier to be alone.
She and Justin are now grateful for the six weeks they had with beautiful Maddie. They laugh about her smiles and they enjoy the memories they have of her from that all too brief period. Meghan still feels gipped–robbed of a future with her daughter and of the knowledge of who this little spirit would become one day, how she would blossom. But she now understands what the pastor meant that day 12 years ago.
Grief is like an ocean; initially you are at risk of drowning as the waves keep hitting you over and over while in deep water. You tread water as best you can but it is exhausting. As time passes, you move towards the shore, and your toes finally find the sand. Once you are standing, you still get knocked down by waves when you are not paying attention, the the undertow sometimes pulls you back, but you slowly make your way further and further out of the water. I don’t think you ever leave the beach though. The tide comes in and out, at irregular intervals, your grief occasionally sweeping over you, sometimes surprising you with its intensity, with its temperature, and somehow your face is soaked again, with tears. This is my approximation.
She says, there is no true closure. The pain is always there; she cried just yesterday. “Time has made me able to step out of it,” she says, “though it comes in waves.” Meghan found this description of grief to really hit home for her. Meghan insists that so many other people she met managed their loss better than she did; I disagree. I think she was a model for healthy grief, and I am forever thankful to her for going against the grain. Even our conversation about this over Skype was a joy; the two of us reminisced and laughed and cried together. I can only hope to come through a painful loss in my life as well as she has.
If you have a suffering friend, support their efforts at communication, whether in person or through Facebook. Try providing food, even if you just leave it outside the door and send a text that it is there. Ask what is needed. Offer, don’t push. Share a resource like Still Standing. Let people know you are there for them if they want to talk. This is often enough. Make yourself available, but don’t force a visit. You can listen, let them share what they want, ask them how long it has been? How long have they been carrying the burden of that grief? It is important to them. It is okay to talk about death, about loss.To not talk about it is to pretend it never happened, a far more painful scenario. Put a quiet hand on your friend’s shoulder, literally or metaphorically, and just be there to weather the storm with them.