THIS I BELIEVE
I believe in grieving forever. I did not always feel this way. When my mother died—March 1986—I believed that grief should not extend beyond one year. In my naivety, I envisioned spring turning into summer and then fall. I pictured holiday celebrations and New York’s Big Ball signaling passage into a New Year. Then, I thought, I would mark her deathday by relinquishing my grief.
It didn’t turn out as planned. In fact, that year and those following were excruciatingly painful. The one bright spot was turning 30. I was grateful to leave behind my 20s, which were scarred by Mom’s cancer, her enlarged arm, the stench of rotting flesh, and the morphine-induced nightmares. But, save my birthday, I sank into a grief that refused to release its grip.
Five years after her death I held my infant daughter, weeping uncontrollably. My husband had recently asked, “Are you ever going to get over it?” and I posed that question to a friend. “Will I?” It seemed impossible. Impossible that I still grieved. And impossible that I would ever stop grieving.
“Why do you want to ‘get over’ it?” my friend replied. “It’s YOUR grief. You can grieve as long as you want. You can grieve the rest of your life.”
For the first time in years, I felt better. It was as if a huge mass, stuck in the middle of my chest, dissolved. I COULD grieve the rest of my life. It wasn’t un-natural or strange. It was mine.
Still, all that agonizing took its toll. I struggled to maintain relationships because I did not want to experience the kind of pain I felt when Mom died. I divorced my husband, quit my job, and relocated. No more risk for me.
If my first greatest life lesson was the freedom to grieve forever, then the second lesson was that a heart can always make room for love. I didn’t know when my daughter was born that a child can make a person feel alive again, even after terrible loss. As my daughter grew, grief consumed me less.
This summer, grief struck again.
A friend phoned to tell me that the woman he loved had died unexpectedly. Just 32, she and her 4- and 9-year old children were living with his son and him when a brain aneurism killed her. His devastation was compounded when her ex drove up from Florida to claim the children. “Last month,” he said “we were a family of five. Now there are just two of us.”
I pictured them celebrating July 4th—grilling out, steaming corn on the cob, spitting watermelon seeds into the grass—and then, a week later, gathering for a funeral.
At age 49, he had finally found happiness. Now it was gone.
“I’m angry.” He said it again and again. Angry. How could I respond? “Are you in counseling?” “Can you talk with anyone?” “Can you see the kids?” I realized that those questions—and others—could not be asked.
Nor could I say, “It’s okay. You’ll grieve forever for her.” That is no comfort for the newly grieving. Right now, he is consumed with marking special occasions and holidays, watching the moon creak slowly across the sky. Laughing people, couples holding hands, and children playing in parks seem to mock him. But eventually, it may come to him. He may realize that it is important—necessary, even—to grieve forever. He will join those of us who have loved deeply, lost, and discovered that honoring our dead is best achieved by grieving forever.
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