I have a friend who is grieving for a child who succumbed to cancer. I worry about her, but there is little I can do for her at the practical level. When she reaches out on social media, the outpouring of love and understanding is immense, but I wonder if it really helps.
I wonder too, about how my friend’s grief affects her family dynamic. Does her husband prefer to turn inward, rather than air his feelings? Does he feel as though he failed his biological purpose by not protecting his family from harm? Does he show impatience with his wife’s need to talk about her sadness and her longing for their child?
I know that grieving can be postponed, but not indefinitely. And I wonder how much grieving is normal: how long my friend can grieve before her spouse or some expert tells her time’s up. Stop the grieving now.
Some say there are four stages of grief, while others say there are five. The experts talk about “normal grief” and something called “abnormal” or “complicated” grief. This is grief that has staying power, or grief that is delayed, for instance. Some people grieve too deeply, while others are denied their feelings by society: told their feelings are unacceptable, to put a cork in it.
My father died when I was 13. It was unexpected. It was over in a split second. I wasn’t home when it happened and having said goodbye to him at an airport within hours of his death, I feel I had decent closure. He was smiling. He kissed me goodbye. We had no unresolved issues. My adolescence hadn’t gotten to the awful stage yet (my mother was the unlucky sole beneficiary of my teenage angst) so things were good.
I mostly felt shock when I heard the news. Shock and emptiness. Yet not shock. Because I already knew. A friend had a premonition and told me about it. He walked me home from school prior to the event and said, “I have this feeling that when you come back from your trip, your father won’t be here.”
|At Falling Water a year or so before my father died. My parents, me, and my sister Devera.|
And when I woke up with a tummy ache at 2 AM, the exact time listed as his time of death, I was not surprised when a little while later, I heard the phone ring and my aunt, with whom I was staying, say, “Oh my God.”
I told myself it must be my grandfather, my only remaining grandparent, although he too, was well, and actually would not die for another decade.
I was not surprised when my aunt stood up for the mourner’s prayer at my friend’s Bat Mitzvah service, which was the reason I was in Buffalo, NY, with my aunt and uncle, rather than at home in Pittsburgh. And I was also not surprised when my aunt told me, as soon as the service was over, that we would not be attending the luncheon, that my father was very ill and that we must return to Pittsburgh at once.
I knew. I knew. I knew.
I cried a few quiet tears in the backseat of my uncle’s car. And what had happened was confirmed when we crested Ferree St. and came down the other side that led straight into the driveway of my childhood home on Asbury Pl. The front door was open. The house was lit up. And I could see people milling about inside.
I knew it was a shiva house, shiva meaning seven, for the week of Jewish mourning. I came in and everyone said, “Shhhh. She’s here.”
My mother sat me down on one of our matching loveseats in the living room and said, “Daddy passed away last night.”
I wanted to ask questions. Why? What had happened? But I didn’t want to be a burden. Later I was told that my mother had said repeatedly, “I don’t know how I’ll tell Barbara (the name by which I was called then).”
I was encouraged to go up to my bedroom and rest. My uncle, a pediatrician gave me pills. He said they would help me sleep and urged me to take them. People came and went. I was numb. They all wanted so deeply to help me not to feel.
So I didn’t.
The next day we stood in a receiving line at the funeral home. Each person said the same thing to me. “I’m sorry,” they all said, one at a time. Each time someone said it to me, tears fell from my eyes in huge wet drops and I’d watch the blue fabric of my dress absorb them soundlessly as they spread and then disappeared.
|Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma Meyers|
I don’t remember sadness or pain. I remember soundless tears and fearing to be a burden. I remember numbness.
Then, six months later, I was sitting in class and started to sob. Wracking sobs. Uncontrollable sobs. It HURT.
My teacher was smart enough to know what she was seeing: grief, finally coming out, months later, unbidden, without any particular trigger. It just happened. She found a quiet place for me to sit and asked my best friend at that time, also named Barbara, to just sit by my side, which she did, rubbing my back a bit, just being there, which was enough. I needed a witness. I had finally opened the curtain on my grief at my father’s passing.
And every day for the rest of my years at home, I would awaken at 5:30 AM to listen for my dad leaving the house for work. There should have been the telltale sound of his hand gripping the cuff of a brownbag lunch as he got ready to leave. But every morning, for years, only silence.
I ached inside, but was well-controlled. The pain subsided sometimes and I’d forget until something would remind me.
40 years later I still light a candle on the anniversary of his death. I post photos of him on Facebook and people commiserate. They say, “The pain never really goes away.”
And I wonder if something is wrong with me, because I haven’t felt sad about my father in a very long time. I feel that he can see me and that he approves. I feel that I live my life in part for him, to make him proud of me.
There are all kinds of grief, I suppose.