August 14, 2010

and the world spins madly on

I have gotten into this strange, slightly creepy pattern of discovering a blog (although usually it’s one with a huge readership and didn’t require much ‘discovery’), becoming interested and curious, and reading mile after mile of its archives. Usually it’s the things she has to say, or the way she says them, that pulls me in and makes me want to learn more about her (and so far, these have all been women anyway, so the ‘she’ is accurate). (I know I go a little crazy with the parentheses, but it makes sense to me. Sorry if it makes it more confusing to read. There is no easy way to organize my brain.)

In the case of my most recent time-sucker, it was a tragic event and the unfolding story around it that caught my attention. This couple unexpectedly lost their first and only daughter before she even hit two years old, and both of them (although more so in the wife’s case) documented the subsequent deluge of grief in their writing.

This is where I mull over the fact that grief is a strange phenomenon, but not so strange between strangers. Everyone’s grief is different, so much so that to categorize and file it away under that one word—the mental, physical, and emotional toll; the ebb and flow of feelings; the ‘time period’ (with no definite ending); the altered reality—must have been dreamed up by someone who hadn’t ever grieved a beloved person. Like so many emotional experiences in this life, someone tried to stick a word to something that can’t be named, like running after a wicked thunderstorm with its label on a post-it. Almost too ridiculous to bother. But to someone who has never watched the sky turn green and a funnel cloud touch down in their backyard, it’s simple to slap that post-it to the photo and move on. Labeled and filed. Done. I have progressed through the Seven Stages Of Grief and I am done. Check the box and continue on my merry way.

Nine years ago today my mom died. Nothing at all like losing a baby girl. But so much of what I read from these two mourning people was a true and accurate testimony of what it’s like to be the one left behind. To be the one left in the wake of someone’s inexplicable vanishing. I found myself in tears or letting loose sighs I didn't even realize I was holding in at the end of many of their posts because I have shared those same thoughts or wished those same impossible wishes. (C.S. Lewis and Nicholas Wolterstorff also put relatable emotions into words; I’m sure there are many more out there I simply haven’t read.)

I know it sounds weird to identify so closely with strangers, but with loss, you either get it or you don’t. You either think at some point you ‘get over it’, or you know that no one ever does. The individual who came up with that cliché ‘time heals all wounds’ was misinformed, because it doesn’t tell the whole story. Time heals the skin visible to the world, but leaves you with a tender scar and a quieter, unseen hurt, like a low-lying, slow-moving stream. The torrential flood does drain away, and sometimes you can go a while without a ripple in the current, but it’s still flowing, steady and silent most of the time. That loved one may not be present any more, but their very absence has its own presence. An empty hole is still a hole. And the timeline of your life is forever divided into the time before and the time after.

Eventually, I will have lived more of my life without her than with her. More people will know me in a context with her absence than a context with her presence. The reality is that time lurches steadily forward, but tiny parts of my brain and my heart just won’t buy it, and float along that deep smooth current, quietly looking backwards all the while.


  1. Anna, you write beautifully and this is the most perfect observation of grief I have ever read (as someone who is unfortunately in the club of the "in the wake of someone's inexplicable vanishing"). I hope you don't mind if I share it around ... I think it will resonate deeply.
    And I'm so sorry to be in this club with you, but so glad that you can give it the proper words.

  2. Another beautiful post. Anna Quindlen called what comes after the hard work of grief the "continuing presence of an absence."

    I remember at your mom's wake I hugged your dad and said how sorry I was, because you know, there aren't really any other words that are relevant. He said, "Thanks, Eve, I know that you know what it's like." I lost a daughter, not a spouse, but even in his immediate grief, your dad apparently made the same connection that you did--that loss is loss and grief is grief, and you don't ever get over it.

    It changes you, and eventually it might not even be the most important thing for someone to know about you--but you don't "get over it."

  3. Stumbled upon your blog and wanted to write to thank you for telling your story. This is a lovely, lovely post and you captured grief very well. It doesn't ever go away, it just changes. And it forever changes the person left behind. I've experienced it as well (my best friend was tragically murdered six years ago) and blogged the ups and downs of the experience. Anyway, just wanted to reach out and tell you I appreciated your post.