I’ve been talking to The Wife lately, gleaning highlights from a journal article she read about grief. The gem she uncovered suggested thinking of grief as less ‘letting go’, and more as ‘holding on’. To free ourselves from the pressure to ‘move on’ or ‘go forward’, and to instead find some part of our loss to own and value. Not to ‘detach’, but to instead maintain some of the emotional relationship with the departed. Which seems helpful to me, whether someone is facing the death of a loved one or the myriad other losses that we suffer in this life. Attachment can be both good and bad, perhaps even simultaneously.
Then I was talking with a friend yesterday, and he was relating a story about two female friends of his, both of whom lost 17-year-old sons to auto accidents in the same year. One of whom pursued the (seemingly more sensible) ideal of being stoic and steely; of pushing ahead and prevailing over her loss. The other mother made the (seemingly crazy) choice to simply devote herself to sitting with parents who had recently lost their children. My friend described this as ‘integration’, but it seemed far deeper than that.
In my friend’s telling, the first mother is– now 10 years later– a shadow and a shell of her former self, incapacitated and insular. The second mother is– quite surprisingly– happy and well-adjusted. She is still keeping up with her work, joyfully reporting that the constant exposure to grief “keeps the wound fresh”. This seems strange to me, even as it makes sense. Like an easy, false dichotomy, but one which nevertheless seems to hold some truth. After all, the Biblical collection of Proverbs is a whole book of false dichotomies, but it’s still brimming with wisdom.
All of this was on my mind last night as I went through the tax planning sheets sent to us by our accountant, and as I circled my son’s name on the sheet marked ‘Dependents’ and wrote: “Deceased, 9/12/06″. I shed a few tears and stared at the reality in black and white while his mother slept on the couch, and his sister slept in her crib. As on many nights, I missed being able to look up at him in his crib in the middle of our home, and I felt a small smile crease my cheek.
And the wisdom came back to me today, when I was mailing that same tax packet at the post office. The lady in front of me had two kids piled into a single stroller, the older one squeezed into the parcel carrier beneath, grinning at me as his head hung out the back. The younger child appeared more comfortable, but was growing increasingly unhappy, and vocal. All of us sharing that public space felt our own escalation of anxiety as the baby got louder and louder. Until he gradually started to sound just like my son, hollering to beat the band. Which brought me a few more tears, and some smiles of pride.
I didn’t wipe off the tears or the smile, which confused the gentlemen who took my money and mailed my package. I could catch him double-taking my mixed expression, my harsh integration, my experiment in keeping my wound fresh.
Posted in: grief