Writing about my daughter’s death has been disturbing. I’ve found my sleep upset by difficult dreams, even though they also always contain some symbol of transcendence. I’ve been carrying around a weighty sorrow and disappointment these past few weeks, probably not all arising from her death. But it’s simpler to think that it’s all about that particular sorrow.
My one-time son-in-law and I were talking about the trying summer we’ve had, which began with his father’s suicide. He had an email from an attorney addressing his “putative” claim to part of his father’s estate, which was ridiculous because under our state laws his claim is in no way putative. His claim is actual. But, because of the email and the way our summer went, we’ve dubbed this The Putative Summer. It was summer, all right, but we experienced few or none of the usual joys of summer, just funerals and grieving and disturbing questions.
Our Putative Summer made me think about things I don’t want to think about, much. I’ve carried around a tennis-ball sized knot right below my heart for some weeks now. Writing about how I’ve “healed” has, ironically, pushed me back to that place where
The whole head is sick,
And the whole heart is faint.
From the sole of the foot even to the head
There is nothing sound in it,
Only bruises, welts, and raw wounds,
Not pressed out or bandaged,
Nor softened with oil.
We seem to have consensus that people integrate their great losses and griefs and go on with their lives, for the most part. But there may also be unresolved grief, delayed grief, chronic grief, distorted grief, somatized grief, and interferences with grief. Parents who have lost a child may rush to conceive another child or adopt one, replacing the lost child and thus sealing the fate of the unborn with a weight too heavy for a baby to carry. They may make shrines to the dead in their homes, or may become bitter and angry. Marriages end. There is no doubt that for some, there is no “healing,” no return or progression to a state where there is no longer any infirmity arising from the loss.
What I think about most is not how I healed, but how I changed after Olivia’s death. I changed in such profound ways that I completely abandoned some of my former habits and some of my former relationships. This is not unusual, for only the stout of heart can stick with a friend who is suffering so acutely. As for the bereaved, we wonder why, before the loss, we put up with any fair weather friends. One of my closest friends hurt me deeply as Olivia lay dying. The way she treated me felt like utter abandonment, even though she probably didn’t intend it. Even though we later made peace, I ultimately decided that she was not a friend worth keeping. I would not have made this decision earlier in my life, for in olden days I willingly put up with relationships that lacked balance or reciprocity.
When a family member later appropriated this once-close friend as a mentor, I inwardly wished them both the best but knew beyond doubt that I’d never trust either of them again. In A Companion Through the Darkness, Stephanie Ericsson writes that we are at our most vulnerable when in deep mourning. This is when the dark-hearted show themselves:
They emerge at fortuitous times, usually when we are at our weakest, because evil will never seek an equal opponent. It is the hyena who waits until the prey falters before it moves in for the kill. […] It is inevitable that evil will rear its head when death visits. In-laws never speak to us again after the funeral. No explanation. No reason. Just silent blame and cruel desertion. […] Many of us who expected our families and friends to stand by us at our darkest hour found ourselves attacked instead. […] I found that everything I thought I could count on, I couldn’t. People I thought cared for me, I discovered hated me. People I never knew cared for me came through as beacons of light.
The most grievous losses have a way of dividing silver and dross through betrayals. I determined to have less dross in my life, and more of what is precious and lasting.
Like many others who have lost children, I changed most in my thinking about what matters. In The Worst Loss, Barbara Rosof writes that the majority of bereaved parents say that their values shifted dramatically after their child’s death. Their dedication to “the conventional markers of success-promotions, a nicer house, more money and things-all mattered much less to them after their child died. Their commitments changed as well” (258).
Before Olivia died, I was more committed to fostering the growth of other peoples’ real selves than my own. This changed as I became more of my true self after she died. I had held onto God through the most terrifying experience, and He had made marvelous to me His lovingkindness in a besieged city. While this steeled me in my innermost being, it also compromised the patience I’d had with ridiculous people in the past. I became sick to death of hypocritical Christians. I stopped going to church for a year, and stayed home and worshiped God on my own. Some mornings, while my husband took all our children to church, I stayed for an hour and a half on my face on our bedroom floor, my heart rent in two.
My true self sprang out of the head of my old self after Olivia died. She was my teacher even in death, and I think that it has taken every bit of eight years to make sense of what happened. A place that had never been hard in me hardened and became immovable under the developmental demands of middle age and the tutelage of sorrow.
I don’t have time for foolishness any more. I hear the clock ticking.
. . . any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind,
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.
Neither can we call this a begging of misery,
or a borrowing of misery,
as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves,
but must fetch in more from the next house,
in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors.
Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did,
for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.
No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it,
and made fit for God by that affliction.
If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold,
and have none coined into current money,
his treasure will not defray him as he travels.
Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it,
but it is not current money in the use of it,
except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it.
John Donne, From “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions” (1623),
XVII: Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris