A predictable aspect of grieving my parents, which surprised me nonetheless, is the re-runs on the grief channel. By which I mean that the memory of another major parting has been rattling its chains at me like Jacob Marley’s ghost. Except, in this case, Scrooge’s theory that the apparition is just a bit of undigested beef is entirely apt.
The relief of knowing what to name the emotions which have marked my parents’ “change in life status” (how do you like them apples?) has a reassuring certainty which is, in itself, comforting. A friend who lost his dad a few weeks after Mom died asked me whether I felt the same physical pain he was having. Oh, Honey. Yes. Thus we travelled on, each along different paths perhaps, but with the same rain falling on our heads. By naming grief, I gain admission to a club which no one, not even Groucho Marx, wants to join until they can’t avoid it.
Naming and words are the white blood cells of our emotional immune system. Despite any debate over its stigmatizing effects, most people intuitively sense the powerful relief of labeling. We want to know what we are dying of. The potency of this unseen force to transform us from victim to, at a minimum, host, is compelling proof that intangibles can dominate our lives as mercilessly as any physical coercion.
It is no exaggeration to say that this word’s absence left a hole in my life as profound as the loss it might have neutralized. What about grief that goes un-named? What permits us to name some losses grief, and disqualifies others?
I lost someone. I didn’t think I would ever love anyone, and then I did, and he didn’t and that loss, in my world, was as much a death as I had ever known. But no one offered me the word “grief,” and why would they? Don’t all young people fall in love, and then bounce out of it like four year olds jumping on the mattress? Sure, they might bump their heads, but the candle is so worth the game, their enthusiasm cannot be cured.
Pressured from all sides, internal and external, to lay aside my loss and recover, my feelings emerged in actions and decisions that still make me cringe. Therapists diagnosed “low self esteem,” but believe in myself though I might, the persistence of an engulfing sadness and pain only compounded my problem with my failure to get well. Eventually, I surmised how I was supposed to act, and got a divorce from my heart. If only.
Implicit in grieving is submission. Some may erroneously set time or depth limits, but as a rule most human beings expect grief to make them feel as badly as they ever will, for longer than they really want. This capitulation to feeling, and the companionship of fellow sufferers, may be grief’s only rewards, but they are richly fecund. Exclusion from this clubhouse, for lack of the password, is true isolation.
Which has me asking, do I need more grief in my life? Do we all? Is it grief, not depression, that plagues us in heretofore unheard of numbers? Does this fearsome word, as universally understood as hunger, absorb more than its fair share of behaviors that don’t serve us, wielding the power to restoring our psychic and spiritual selves to their natural business of working to make good things happen? Because once the diagnosis of grief is on the table, there is only one more thing left to lose, and that is Time.