This week, upon the passing of my Aunt Sadie, the last of my grandmother’s seven-person sibling group, I was suddenly struck again with a deep longing to see my grandmother just one more time. My grandmother, whose wedding ring I wear and china I pull down for special occasions. My grandmother, who taught me to drive and prepped me on how to answer interview questions for my first big job. My grandmother, who thought it would be much more fun for her grandkids to just call her by her first name–Helen. We used that name like a mighty title conferred by God. She wasn’t just anyone. She was THE Helen Abbott–queen of Church Street in Winterville, NC USA. And she was copiously, extravagantly loved.
Somewhere, down beneath the raucous family gatherings in which we gleefully toasted to her many eccentricities and around the corner, just past my cheerful admonitions that she had a good life and a kind death, there lives an inestimable ache. When someone dies, you prepare yourself to grieve in all the typical ways. I mean, I wrote my damn dissertation about grief and loss, so believe me when I tell you that I snottily assumed that my own trajectory through the landscape of mourning would be poetic, deeply meaningful if wrought, and full of cleansing tears.
Yeah, that’s not what happened.
Instead, I floundered, bubble wrapped in a numb kind of desolation that was suddenly hardwired to any thought I had of my grandmother. I didn’t feel pain so much as an emptiness I still can’t describe, a yawning grey cavern where so much joy and color used to live. In many ways, that was far worse. Even now, when my oldest son passes pictures of my grandmother in our house, he talks about her by name as though she’ll just drop by at any moment for a cup of coffee. Some days, I kind of join him in peeking around the corners to catch a glimpse of her.
The evening after Helen died, all of us grandchildren went out to have an Irish wake. Giddy with exhaustion and an unfettered desire to do something rebellious in the face of death’s hard-core insistence on nuking our family unit, we sat at a small-t0wn night club drinking fish bowls full of fruit flavored alcohol. I twirled the pink paper umbrella between my fingers as I cheerfully gyrated around the floor to late-nineties slow jams, my face a rictus grin of disbelief and distance from the biological certainty of her death. My sweet friend, Laura Jane, who had tagged along perhaps for moral support, perhaps to drive–I was so traumatized I honestly can’t remember–kept asking me, “Honey, are you going to be alright? I think Helen would think this is hilarious, but are you going to be alright?”
And this, of course, is the pivotal question that you ask yourself after the doctor shakes her head at you, or the state trooper arrives at your door. Whatever grim harbinger of extinction shows up to let you know that your world has been blown apart…when that messenger has departed, you’re left to reflexively grab your chest and think to yourself, “Will I ever be alright?”
I think the answer to that question depends on what you believe the nature of loss to be. Do you expect to be fine in the same manner that you were before? Or do you suppose, as a very wise client of mine often says, “to have a new normal?” Can you accept that the raw power of the grief and the sheer magnitude of the love can hold the same space at the same time?
The death of my Aunt Sadie has intersected with several conversations I have been having with clients who have lost an important person. For some, this is a loss that happened years ago. For others, the cut is a fresh one. But they are all asking themselves if they’re doing this grief thing the right way. If they cry, when is the weeping too much or gone on too long? If they don’t cry, does that mean the anguish hasn’t really been felt and is instead lurking, waiting to spring?
Research about the nature of grieving in our country has discovered that we the people tend to gloss over the suffering of the loss in favor of honoring the brightness of the light that was extinguished, never admitting that we can do both at once. (Don’t even get me started about the newest DSM revision pathologizing grief responses even further.) Somehow, we have all become so very afraid of the power of mourning that we try to neutralize it under the auspices of “moving on” or “looking at the life not the death.” While I am all for making sense of sad situations in a positive manner, I think that can only be done with real authenticity when we have really honored the fact that coping with a loss is actual, confusing soul work. It’s ok to not know if you’re doing it right. It’s ok for it to be different from day-to-day. It’s ok for you to do the best you can without knowing what the end destination of “ok” looks like. Please be gentle with yourselves and know that your map for getting through this doesn’t have to look the same as anyone else’s.
So, I raise my glass to Aunt Sadie and Helen and all the wonderful people we have to thank for shaping our lives into a patchwork of love and connection. Know I am holding you in that heart space as well.
Your Partner in Healing,
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