Leper

Leperous Job

Four years, four months, and eight days. 

This is how long it has been since my husband ended his life.

This is how long it has been since my husband ended my life.

The mercy of the first year of grief was the numbness. I sleep-walked through twelve calendar months. When I began to stir from the opiate of grief, memories came up like photographs in a screen saver: Disorganized, disembodied, disconnected.

I preserved a sense of household normalcy through strength of will and habit. Friends and family were supportive, but I could not be comforted. Deeply ashamed, I would not tell strangers how my husband died. I told partial truths, “He had Parkinson’s Disease.”

He committed suicide. He died by suicide. He killed himself. He took his own life.

We were Christians and Catholics, among whom one would expect to receive mercy, but where, more often than not, judgment is harsh and more liberally dispensed than in any gathering of sinners. I learned to shut my mouth and my heart.

Year one passed by.

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Year two was worse than the first. Old schisms and fissures expanded. Brittle relationships buckled and failed. Someone whispered he was the good one. Another said you’ve changed too much and unfriended me on social media.

She’s a bitch. She’s a sorceress.

She’s too liberal now.

He was the good one.

I stopped trying to explain myself.  I drank more wine.  I wanted to die.

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During the third year, a leprosy of my soul set in: Nerve damage, a loss of vision, the bloody stump. A corruption made visible, emblems of decay and pollution, weakness and sin.

“Unclean! Unclean!” I rang the leper’s bell.

Stay downwind; stay away from us. We’re not like you.

Don’t associate with them, their dad killed himself.

Something is wrong with that family.

I learned why Jesus associated with whores, thieves, tax-gatherers and sinners. I drank vodka tonics at the bar. I learned to make the perfect Bloody Mary. I stopped going to mass.

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At the end of the fourth year, my friend died. She who was at the births of my twin daughters. She who was like a second mother to them, a daughter to me. She who communicated the love of Christ better than anyone else I’ve known, other than my husband. She who carried me through the years of grief over my daughter’s death, over my husband’s death.

Daddy, Mommy’s asleep and won’t wake up.

Daddy, I can’t wake Mommy. 

She who had three young children ages two, six, and eight was dead on her daughter’s sixth birthday, a Happy Birthday banner strung across the fireplace.

Life and Death

Once upon a time . . .

My child died.

We had almost recovered, but then—

He was diagnosed.

He grew ill.

He wasn’t himself.

He had a wreck and nearly killed a man.

He lost hope.

He ended his life.

He ended my life, and then—

My friend of 24 years died.

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The process of suffering gone to decay and degradation has a name in alchemy: fermentation. Fermentation is a two-step process that begins with the putrefaction of a child, the hermaphroditic child who resulted from the conjunction process.

Pay attention here:

A union occurs, a marriage, a conjunction.

A child is born, a whole and glorious child, the fruit of this union.

But then, the child becomes diseased and dies.

The child putrefies and rots.

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Once, I was blessed, O so blessed.

I married the love of my life and received every good thing.

Every wish I ever wished came true.

But then, my husband became diseased and died.

And now, I putrefy and rot.

happy_birthday

Suggested Reading

Alchemy: The Great Work

Von Franz, Marie-Louise. Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology. Toronto, Canada. Inner City Books, 1980. Print.

Perspective

Last week, I accompanied my son to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, where he’ll experience what’s known as “plebe summer,” an intense and grueling introduction to military life that precedes the academic year. We walked across the still campus together at 6:00 a.m., for he had been ordered to report for his duty as a student and midshipman at 6:30 a.m., and in the Navy, 15 minutes early is on time.

Excited and anxious to get I-Day (Induction Day) underway, my son took long strides toward Alumni Hall, where he would be received by friendly folks who would shave his already short hair, have his clothes taken away and uniforms issued by folks a little less friendly, and ultimately be handed over to upperclassmen (known as “detailers”) who would be anything but friendly.

We arrived at Alumni Hall and my son squared his shoulders, gave me a quick hug and “I love you, Mom!” and walked through the tinted glass doors to report. Separating myself from the growing crowd of parents saying goodbye to their children, I walked across the still and beautiful campus alone. It was 6:10 a.m. I was proud of my son, happy that he was beginning to live his dream, relieved that he had finally begun I-Day (Induction Day), which many reported was the worst day of their lives. As I walked across the yard alone, I felt my own loneliness keenly, too, for I was a widow who had been surrounded by throngs of couples seeing their sons and daughters off.

Sadness and peace settled on me as I walked alone toward Bancroft Hall, the largest dormitory in the world, housing over 4000 midshipmen along miles of corridors. The courtyard outside Bancroft was empty except for a handful of parents busy with something along the first row of chairs already set out for the thousands of family members who would return in the evening for the Induction Ceremony when our kids raised their right hands and were sworn into the U.S. Navy.

As I approached, I saw that they had paper, markers, and tape in hand and were ‘reserving’ seats for themselves and family members by taping signs bearing their surnames onto the chairs. While I watched, more parents approached. Once they realized that others were ‘reserving’ seats, a sense of urgency began to pervade the growing crowd. People scrambled for more paper, more pens, more tape.

 

Within 20 minutes, the first quarter of both sides of the audience seating were taken. I sat in the middle and observed, thinking to myself how ridiculous the behavior was. Among the thousands of visitors to the Naval Academy that day were numerous elderly grandparents, some who used canes or even wheelchairs. People with medical conditions would be in the heat and need to sit down, but clearly the folks ‘reserving’ their own seats had no thought for anyone other than themselves. They were reserving seats for their five- or ten-year-old children, kids who could sit in the shade under a nearby tree later, rather than take up seating for an adult.

As I watched, I realized that by 6:00 p.m. there would be no available seating. I would have to sit or stand under a tree and wouldn’t be able to see my son march in with his class to take the oath. I didn’t care. It wasn’t important if it meant I would have to stake my claim by way of paper, tape, marker. Nevertheless, my inner trickster wanted to rip up the signs people had left taped to their chairs, throwing half away and moving the other half around, maybe adding a few signs that read, “This spot reserved for YOU!”

I felt embarrassed for these people who were, like me, merely guests of the USNA. Was it proper protocol to demand a front seat for oneself? I thought about the upcoming release of the new Harry Potter movie in a few weeks. If I taped signs with our last names in the hallways outside the theater, would that save the 11 places we’d need? Could I walk boldly into the theater itself, ahead of everyone else, and simply tape reserved seating signs on 11 seats? Would such behavior work in any other setting? I doubted it would.

What most surprised me, though, was my own emotional reaction. I didn’t care whether I had a seat or not. I didn’t care that I might have to miss the ceremony. I didn’t care that I would probably have to sit on the ground, far behind where the ceremony was being held. I didn’t care to ‘reserve’ my own seat. I would have felt ashamed to put my last name on one of those seats, ashamed to assume the right to stake a claim where no run on seating had been declared, ashamed to assume that I deserved a seat more than the person whose child had been commanded to report at 9:30 a.m. rather than 6:30 a.m., ashamed to be a person who thinks that getting there first means getting the best.

Noticing my judgments of these parents, I took the opposite perspective and played devil’s advocate, challenging myself to discover when in my own life I have been the one staking my claim with paper, tape, marker. I realized then that I have been that person too many times. I’ve pushed my way to the top in my youth. I’ve waited impatiently in lines. I’ve demanded my way politely but urgently. I’ve taped virtual signs everywhere with my name on them. I taped a claim on my own marriage that said, “Happy Golden Years” as if I deserved them because I thought I did. After my daughter died, I taped a claim on my life that said, “Has Already Suffered Great Grief,” perhaps believing that prior grief would provide some kind of insurance against the next blow. Such claims creep in so easily.

Loss has once again pushed me down under the margins of normal life, which is a life of denial and illusion, for the truth is that we’re blind to reality and it is usually blindness that gets us out of bed, not courage. My mantra these days is, “It’s not worth it.” It’s not worth it if I have to tape a claim on something. It’s not worth it if someone who needs it more than I do is deprived of it because I’m so piggish. It’s not worth fighting over it if the other person insists on his own way; soon enough, he’ll see that all the fighting in the world will not guarantee victory.

One of the definitions of God used most often by Carl Jung was, “the name by which I designate all things which cross my wilful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans, and intentions and change the course of my life for better or worse” (Letters, 2, p. 525); “. . . it is always the overwhelming psychic factor that is called ‘God'” (CW 11, para. 137).

God has violently crossed my wilful path and changed my life, reminding me for a time that no amount of paper, tape, marker will do for me what I, in my hubris, think they will. Strangely enough, there’s a grim satisfaction in knowing this.

Tribulation is Treasure

Writing about my daughter’s death has been disturbing. I’ve found my sleep upset by difficult dreams, even escher5 by you.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.

Putative Summer

My former 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.
(Isaiah 1:5-6)

We seem to have consensus that people integrate their great losses and griefs and go on with their lives, for escher4 by you.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.

Putative Friends

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 escher3 by you.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.

Putative Values

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 escher1 by you.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

Resolved to Heal?

After an injury or trauma of any kind, we often want to know how to heal. What must we do to regain our abbey1 by you.health? How long will it take before we are returned to normal? This is true whether the trauma is physical or psychological. Indeed, after I wrote recently about my daughter’s death, people asked how did I heal? What was the recovery process like for me, and how did I resolve my grief? These are challenging questions to answer after a significant loss, because they assume that one does heal, that life goes on and the bereaved return to their previous state, or attain a new state of health that has assimilated their great loss. But is it realistic to assume that people do, in fact, recover? Do we, in actuality, heal after suffering a permanent loss?

I spoke for an hour or so last week with my friend Amy, who lost her baby last year. I asked her if she felt that she had healed, and she replied, “No, of course not. You don’t heal, really; you just go on.” I know many others who have lost loved ones with whom they were very close, who agree that healing isn’t the word for what happens to us afterward. I think that sometimes we don’t heal as abbey2 by you.much as we build a temenos in the place in our hearts where the beloved was. We return to that place whenever we need to, but someone (or something) is always missing–always, in a most permanent way, as long as we live. Even if we believe, as spiritual people do, that this life is not permanent and that another life or world will arrive in which our state of loss is not permanent and in which, in fact, we will see the restoration of everything that was once lost, we will still and always suffer from what was lost in this life. And this life is really the only one I’m qualified to write about, most particularly my own life and how loss has worked for me.

Years before Olivia died, I had worked as a counseling psychologist specializing in lives and families built on, living with, or recovering from loss and trauma. I counseled many bereaved parents, infertile couples, mothers who had placed children for adoption, and foster and adoptive families, among others. I own close to one hundred books about loss, trauma, and bereavement, and all of them expect the bereaved person to recover, to heal, and to resolve their grief. As a professional, I was trained as a healer, and so I too initially expected that my clients would “heal.”

Over time, however, and having left behind the developmental hardiness and invulnerability of the twenty- or thirty-something, I came to understand that some wounds never do heal. Some losses are, in fact, permanent; for some mistakes, we do not get do-overs. Though Lazarus rose from the dead, most people do not. We stand slack-jawed, sackcloth and ashes for our garments.

What it Means to Heal

abbey11 by you.The word heal comes from the Old English word hælan, to make hale, whole, or free from infirmity. Among traditional therapists and counselors, it is a favorite word that means next to nothing when applied to the aftermath of losing one’s beloved. How can we expect a person whose life has been shattered to reassemble pieces that have been blown to smithereens? We total cars, but we don’t total human beings; we expect nothing less than a full recovery. If physical recovery is not possible, we demand the psychological one.

Another favorite concept among professionals and laypersons alike is “resolution.” “Have you resolved your loss?” they ask. “Has your grief been resolved?” they want to know. But, having been on both sides of the therapeutic encounter, I’m not so sure that there is a final resolution when it is your spouse, your child, your parent or your closest sibling who is dead or lost to you forever. It’s easy to sit in the place of a therapist and tell a client that you’ll work toward resolution of that client’s grief; much harder to achieve something that looks like resolution, that looks like healing.

To resolve something is to make a mental determination about it, to finalize something intentionally. It may also mean to change, convert, or transform by breaking apart. How apt this word is when used in relation to grief and mourning. Perhaps when we ask how someone resolved abbey10 by you.their loss, we mean, “How did you transform? How did this breaking of your heart convert and change you?” Perhaps, when the conscious, compassionate person asks this question, what she means is also, “What transformation occurred, so that I may understand and have hope for when I, too, am torn asunder by the great losses that are coming to me in this life?” For the conscious person knows that losses are coming, that life is suffering and that in this world, we will have tribulation. He or she builds a life that can withstand a great shaking, a life that is emergent after three days and three nights in the belly of the whale.

But just as sure as there are wise folk who will ask about how a loss was healed or resolved, and will mean how transformation occurred, there are also foolish folk who mean nothing of the sort. They’re irritated by people who grieve, and they want us to stop it right now, or as soon as possible. They want us to stop feeling pain so that we’ll stop expressing it. For their sake, we need to be fun to be around again, no longer needing or wanting to talk about our loss so that we can shift our attention to other things and other people—most particularly to the person who wants us to stop grieving.

These people ask, “How did you heal?” but they mean, “Get over it, already!” They seem to think that by asking about healing, they’ll facilitate it. This is especially true, I’ve noticed, among particular types of abbey5 by you.Christians. I call them “Abbey Press (or Mardel) Christians” because they seem able to resolve their problems through Merry Christmas from Heaven ornaments, Whispers from Heaven wind chimes, and I Am With You Always garden stones. If, unlike them, we grieve for more than a few weeks or months, we are “doubting God;” if we mourn too keenly, or talk about how we look forward to seeing our child in heaven, they say we loved our children more than we love God. In their impatience and unconsciousness, they demand that we get past our moroseness, our self-pity, our whining, so that we’ll be available to them again, and so that they can once more be the center of attention.

Some unconscious people are narcissists who need constant attention and care, wanting everything to be about them all the time. They have little or no tolerance for departures from this rule. They are the friends, family members, and fellow churchgoers who disappear when we need them most, and who push us to be ‘normal’ again only a few weeks or months after a death has occurred. They push out of their own ignorance, their unconsciousness to their own pain, and their resistance to the suffering inherent in being a human being living in a fallen world. They want to be immune to it, and so they demand that we be immune.

The First Six Months: Acute Grief

abbey6 by you.The empirical fact is that most bereaved people are not in their right minds for at least six months after they’ve lost someone with whom they were very close; and here I must pause to make another distinction: there’s loss, and then there’s great loss. I think that the depth of love and relational intimacy in a relationship are directly proportional to the intensity of grief and mourning experienced afterward by the bereaved. The greater the love, the greater the loss. This is true, I find, even when no actual relational intimacy occurred over time, such as between the mother who relinquished her child for adoption, and the child who was relinquished. The two may never meet, but the grief experienced by mother or child can be every bit as intense and long-lived as that experienced by people who lived with one another for years. This is so because of the spiritual and psychological intimacy one had with the other, even if only in the soul of the bereaved. Love is love, I say.

Likewise, one can live with or near another person for most of one’s life and feel little more than relief and a vague guilt when that person dies. We mutter about what might have been, shrug our shoulders, and go on with our lives. They gave nothing of themselves, seemed to have no deep emotional core that could be shared with another human being. We attend the funeral or memorial service, and we move on. Goodbye.

But if we lose someone very dear to us, we are not ourselves for many, many months. In fact, the selves we will become as a result of such a large loss have not yet appeared. We experience acute grief for at least six abbey9 by you.months, based on research with bereaved people. Everything I experienced after Olivia died-chest pains, stomach pains, mental fog, forgetfulness, intense emotion and longing-was textbook normal. So, if we expect those who have lost mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, or child with whom they were close to be themselves any time soon afterward, then we’re uninformed. There is no return to ‘normal’ any time soon after a great loss has occurred. And if there is any ambiguity about the loss, such as the loss of a child due to kidnapping or perhaps adoption, or to foster care, and even due to miscarriage, where the child is lost to some people but not to others, then there is no generalizable rule to guide how the bereaved person will grieve. If the grief of those who go through normal losses is profound and life-altering, how much more the grief of those who have no grave to visit. In such situations we can only respond with compassion and hope that a phoenix will arise out of the ashes of the loss. We can only be loving witnesses in such cases; there is nothing we can do to facilitate resolution. It’s not our power that calls forth people from the tomb, or that re-animates what has gone to dust.  It’s a “God thing,” as they say in 12-step programs.

Three Years Later, and Still Mourning

abbey8 by you.Even after six months or more of acute grief, most people who have suffered a significant loss do not complete their initial mourning cycle for at least one year. After the anniversary of the loss comes and goes, most bereaved people continue to mourn for two or three years following the loss of a significantly loved person. Many say that the second year of bereavement is harder than the first; and most bereaved people cannot even make sense of their loss for as many as three years after the loss occurred. Most never really get over it. Most simply learn to live with it. We all hope to integrate the loss and build new lives.

Resources

The Worst Loss: How Families Heal from the Death of a Child, Barbara D. Rosof

When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner

Helping Children Cope with Separation and Loss, Claudia Jewett Jarratt

Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom

Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying, Maggie Callanan & Patricia Kelley

A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis

The First Year

After Olivia died, my chest hurt and I felt heavy all over, as if my body was made of substances more substantial than flesh, bone, and sinew. I questioned myself torturously, second-guessing everything I had done before and during her illness. I had many regrets, and some were deep. I questioned whether we should have adopted another child after Olivia, and even regretted the accidental conception of our twins. All I could think about during the first few weeks was “what if” and “if only.”

swans00 by you.I was also grateful. I felt as overwhelmed by gratitude as I was by grief, thanking God daily that we’d been able to have Olivia at all. I was surprised to discover that I would accept Olivia back at any price, even in a coma, even as a child needing total care. I longed to see her live body again, to feel her hand in mind, to smell the smell of her.

Though we had anticipated and planned Olivia’s death, we hadn’t planned for what life without Olivia would be like; this was unimaginable. We all went through life in slow motion, those first few months after her death. Everyone else in the world seemed happy, sane, and successful. We suffered. I could not tell whether it was sorrow or guilt that felt so heavy in my body.

For months after Olivia’s death, I was terrified of losing another child.

I read Kaddish, Leon Wiesenhalter’s book about his grief the year after his father’s death. Wiesenhalter was a mostly unobservant Jew whose grief compelled him to observe his religion’s rituals of mourning, daily swans02 by you.attending synagogue to recite the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayers of mourning. The reading was sometimes slow going because of all the rabbinical teachings; but it was compelling and a very good read. I found myself enraged with Martin Luther for the Protestant Reformation, because before the Reformation, the early Christian church followed many Jewish customs. We had lost these thanks to Martin Luther, Zwingli, and other Reformers, and although I had been a practicing Protestant for most of my Christian life, I found myself deeply regretting the devastating loss of rituals within the Christian church, particularly those for mourning. The modern Christian was supposed to bury a child and then return to the world of the living and be normal. I reflected that a new mother has as many as six weeks of maternity leave or tender care following a child’s birth; after surgery, one is prescribed a set amount of time for recuperating. But when death comes, there is nothing.

For months after my daughter died, every day I woke up feeling heaviness and chest pain. Tears dithered behind my eyes constantly. Some people-even family members and old friends-avoided us. It seemed that we were allowed a week or two of grace period, after which we were expected to return to our normal strength. Death had birthed us into a caste of undesirables, and our isolation was great sometimes.

swans06 by you.I constantly felt a tender ache of longing for my missing child. The finality of death was stunning and cruel, something I hadn’t expected to experience so bitterly, because I was a Christian with every hope in an afterlife.

I expected to see my daughter here and there, and felt sometimes that she might be just in the next room.

I wasn’t myself mentally. I had taken a break from work on my master of arts in literature, and one day received a paper back that I could not remember writing at all. And yet, there it was in my hand, marked “A,” and dated two weeks after my daughter’s death. I sat there dumbly, looking at the red “A,” feeling crazy.

My children had dreams in which their sister was a glorious, light-filled being; I dreamed of Olivia ill, and dying. We took her bed apart two months after she died, and I cried for hours afterward. By the end of the second month after Olivia’s death, I was carrying a million wonderful things about her, ten bad things, and ten million regrets.

swans05 by you.I joined a grief support group at a local church three or four months after Olivia’s death. It was facilitated by a social worker who had lost her only son in Viet Nam, and whose husband had died of cancer. The facilitator badgered people, particularly those who were recently bereaved. She seemed to have an inner scale for weighing grief, allotting more tolerance to those whose losses were large, and less to those who, in her eyes, were being too sentimental. She could have been a poster child for professionals whose own unresolved problems are projected onto clients. After six weeks, I left the group and asked a local analyst to help me with this stage of my grief, which felt too intensely private to handle elsewhere. I hadn’t the mental or emotional strength to hold that social worker accountable, but I will never forget her. She taught me that I had the strength to protect myself and to keep looking for help until I found what I needed, something I didn’t know with such clarity before Olivia died. I had never experienced such a big loss; I had no idea how I would react in bereavement. Now I knew I would still be, in part, my true self, even during great suffering.

Life went on, and there was something soothing and grounding about schedules and routines. Eight months after Olivia’s death, her birthday came around. I made a photo album of my favorite photographs for her birth mother, and mailed it to her. My heart hurt for hours afterward, and I felt as though I couldn’t breathe, as if the grief would crush me. I felt constant pain, constant guilt, constant relief: pain of missing my Olivia, relief from her constant care, and guilt over feeling relief. How did I do it while she was living? When I looked back, I couldn’t understand how I’d done it, in much the same way that I look at the remains of my daughter’s car after her accident last week and don’t know how they survived.

Landscape by you.The one-year anniversary of Olivia’s death came and went, but not easily. For all the years I had taught and talked about anniversary reactions, I had never understood their power. All of the same feelings I had during the 24 hours of my daughter’s dying and death returned. Later, I looked back and could see how God had carried and sustained me. I was not bitter, and I wasn’t full of self-pity; I hadn’t used Olivia’s death as a weapon or a shield. Olivia’s life had always challenged and often revealed other people’s neurotic leanings; her death had only magnified this effect. It challenged me in my deepest emotional, psychological and spiritual selves, and I had come through refined.

Tomorrow, I’ll write about the dross of this refining experience.

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