I’m coming up on the 44th anniversary of my mother’s death on January 19. When she died I was 22 years old and had just graduated from college the spring before. And looking at those numbers, it strikes me that, as of this year, we overlapped for just 1/3 of my life. A brief span, but her shadow stretches across all the years.
So, today my aim isn’t to write about her, but about grief and the act of grieving. Her death was sudden and my recollection of the time surrounding it is blurred at best. The years following were a time of adjusting to the wrenching change. There were no road maps back then or at least none that I was aware of or open to. I was 22 years old. In my mind I was most definitely all grown up and not really looking for advice or support.
What I can see now, 44 years later, is how very young, confused and lost I was as I stumbled blindly through that time. I remember that I did a lot of writing and a lot of listening to sad music. In the light cast by sudden death, I romanticized what had been a complicated and fraught mother-daughter relationship. And my other relationships through those years were freighted with the heaviness and volatility of grief. But I couldn’t see that at all. After the initial shock and early months of disorientation, I thought I was picking myself up and moving on. And I thought that was what I was supposed to do. Close the book and get back to living my life.
But what I’ve learned, in the years since January 19, 1975, is that you never really close the book. And in order to truly move on, you first have to move in.
Unfortunately, our tendency (and the more WASPish elements of our culture encourage this) is to back away from grief and, indeed, from feelings in general. What that means, practically speaking, is that we don’t actually move anywhere. We get stuck on square one, working stoically to avoid experiencing the profound and disquieting feelings that our loss elicits. Those feelings stay right with us, buried and waiting to be experienced.
And the thing is that grief is about losses of all sizes and shapes. It may be the actual loss of a person in our lives. Or maybe it’s the loss of a relationship, a core element of our identity, or a cherished pastime. (For some of us, it could even be the loss of a football game, sadly enough!)
Any loss strips something away and leaves something raw and vulnerable exposed. And the more those losses pile up, static and ungrieved, the more buried and unexperienced feelings we drag around with us. It gets heavy. It changes us, and not for the better.
So healing is about recognizing and tending to these wounds. (I looked up debridement just now, and while there may be an analogy to be explored there, it was a little too gory for me, so I’ll aim to be a little less bloody in making my point.)
I see grieving as a choice to open to the pain of loss and the real treasures that it holds. It’s a layered experience. It takes you ever more deeply down winding paths, into hidden caverns of self-knowledge. You’ll find places you may not have known existed. You’ll be surprised. The world you see will be altered. And you’ll evolve and deepen, along with your feelings about the loss you’re grieving.
Opening doors rather than closing them, grief introduces you to worlds you can’t imagine when you’re standing, stuck, on square one. Moving toward rather than away, giving voice rather than silencing, grief is a tender and painful gift. It’s humanity at its richest. Turning away from it, we turn away from ourselves. And that’s the biggest loss there is…