For the Bereaved:
An open letter for parents and others
If your child has died, I am so sorry.
I am not "so sorry" in the politely cliché or automatonic way: I am so sorry in an unspeakable and “there really aren’t words for this” way.
In the beginning after catastrophic loss, many will show up in ways that feel hopeful. They will send flowers and cards, meals and hugs. We may not remember much about this part. Our system has endured a tremendous shock. Nothing inside us wants to stay where it is: not our hearts or our minds or our bodies. It’s too painful, too terrifying to live in a world where something so very precious can die. We may get glimpses of the hospital, funeral, or food train but those memories may feel unreal, intangible, and so - understandably- the 'thank you' cards collect dust on our desks.
Days and weeks and months may pass where large swathes of time are unrecollectable. Our entire existence has shifted. Even the image in the mirror is unfamiliar. Our own sensory experiences of the world change- sound, taste, touch, sight, proprioception feel altered - time has a completely different and irrelevant quality. We may feel as if we're living in a liminal space between the living and the dead, an alternate reality from which there is no escape. And yet in quiet moments when we notice our own irregular breathing and contemplate all we've irretrievably lost, it’s simply too much grief to bear and too little mercy to spare for our shattered open hearts.
Mostly, there is this fog of disbelief that lingers as we move in and out of consciousness wondering if this is a nightmare from which we can awaken.
Day by day - sometimes minute by minute- the grief will strike and bring us to our knees. It will surprise us in grocery stores and libraries, at work and at public events. Our minds may begin to tell stories that might or might not belong to us: stories about our goodness as a parent or person or about what we could’ve or should’ve or would’ve done differently. We may feel the relentless sting of shame, guilt, and regret. Our minds may start to question whether we loved our child enough or it may ask if he or she knew that love. Some days we will feel frenetic, desperately discursive and ungrounded. Other days we may resign ourselves to the lethargy and complacence of this unsolvable tragedy.
Our bodies hurt. Our brains stop working. Our hearts feel heavy, laden with the weight of loss. Few things, if any, matter anymore, not the mortgage or the rotting leftovers or the pool algae or the missed calls and texts. Every relationship in our lives changes, for better or not, and every relationship to inanimate objects and the universe and animals and trees and our past and future will change too. This unsteadiness will puzzle others.
And a visually specific “what the hell happened?” film will loop through our minds, it’s unremediable ending is the unsatisfactory same, over and over, until it feels like we've descended into madness. Yet every bit of this enactment - all this emotional rising and falling- is normal. The only wrongness, the only madness or pathology, is that our beloved died.
Months will pass and ever-so-slowly our memories may begin to re-emerge with shreds of trauma and terror and disappointment and hopelessness. The imperfectly beautiful life that was once ours doesn’t exist in the same way, and we try to find steady ground from which to be reborn.
Just around this time, when the permanence of our child’s absence begins sinking into our marrow, other people, because they’ve been taught this myth, will think it’s time for us to move on - to get over it- to reconcile the irreconcilable. Fundamentally, these directives don't make sense because they are nonsensical. The intimation that our child’s death is akin to the loss of something replaceable, something to be healed with a iodine and a band aid or a prayer and prescription, feels even more isolating. Our hearts, then, may begin to question its own inherent wisdom: "Should I move on?" "What does 'moving on' even mean?" "Am I grieving too much? Too little? Too openly? Too privately? Am I crazy?"
But others don’t know, even when they are well-meaning. They cannot know this bottomless grief. Still, their expectations may cause us to mistrust our own wise hearts, our own authentic emotions. And because everything in our world has drastically changed and has been unapologetically stolen from us, there is now no poverty of doubt, fear, and suffering for us. Only at this point, the experience may feel even more like solitary confinement.
Because of this, some will abandon us. In the aisle between the Cheerios and applesauce, they turn and run. Some will try, clumsily perhaps, to abbreviate our grief with their platitudes: "All things happen for a reason," "You're young, you can have more," "At least he's not in pain," "God has a plan," "She'd want you to just be happy," "Just let go," and "Time heals all wounds."
And some, thankfully, will show up with their unassuming hearts open and climb with us into the abyss. Those are the best kind and we will soon learn who is safe and who is reckless with our fragile hearts.
And this is where it gets tricky because the mind sometimes internalizes toxic cultural fiction about grief that is dangerous.
Sycophantic messages from within a culture that avoids and pathologizes grief - within medicine, religion, education, and social life- will urge us to question ourselves and our righteous emotional experiences after loss. Some of those messages will even confront and challenge our desire to to remain connected to our child. Abandoning grief, they say, is necessary for the promise of being happy again.
These same sideline speculators will assert that grief is to be loathed and avoided because it comes with ugly machinations that scare us and others. Understandably, there is a draw to resist the spiral into this darkest night of our soul, and the resistance comes with - often unconscious- distractions. Distracting temptations to avoid our grief are cleverly disguised and endless: work, food, television, gambling, drugs, alcohol- anything that takes us away from our grief feels like relief.
No doubt these may be a welcome respite from the pain, even if only momentarily. But these short-lived and superficial attempts to palliate grief simply prolong the inevitable. Grief will come, one way or another, even if it is forced to change and hide its real form.
The tempter’s promise is a trap that will fragment and chronically constrict our entire world. The only way to stop feeling grief is to stop feeling.
Right in the center of our very wise hearts is the realization that we feel extraordinary grief because of extraordinary love. If we can become still enough, if we can listen to our hearts, it knows that grief is not the enemy. The sagacious heart knows that grief is just an innocent outcome of a most unnatural loss. What we really hate, the real enemy, is that our beloved died. That is what we wish we could conquer, undo, overcome, beat, negotiate, and avoid. Grief is a clean and honest product of the worse day of our lives.
Even as years pass, some will say that it’s unhealthy to remember. Some will castigate us for regrieving. Some will say to choose happiness instead of grief. But happiness and grief are not competitors. That is a myth perpetrated by a culture that is foolishly obsessed with pursuing one and dangerously avoiding the other.
Yes, years later, decades later, we will still carry with us this consummate grief. We will carry it as long as we are alive and willing to live honestly and fully. And when the tsunamis of grief crash down upon us, we become more adept at navigating them. We trust the process. We trust ourselves.
So the invitation for us - from the genesis of loss - will be to mourn openly with our fists raised high, standing strong against those who would try to, again, take what is justifiably ours.
Haven't we already lost enough? Need we lose our truth, too?
This is the one thing we can control; we do have power here.
With the compassionate support of safe people, when we are ready, we can rise up, holding our grief in one fist and our love in the other: “This is mine, and you have no right to take it!"
We can reclaim our power in grief, taking back what is ours. And we can fight to keep safe what has been and will always be the most holy parts of us: our beloved ones who died and for whom we will grieve as long as we are separated.
And we should all know there will likely be peripheral losses along the way.
Many of us will have to make hard decisions. We may be stuck in a meaningless job. Losing our beloved one certainly augments our perspective. Our faith communities may not meet our needs, and we may choose to worship elsewhere. And relationships may crack under the stress of death's fallout. The question: "Is this relationship worth saving?" may be one we often visit.
Because when we are living grief honestly, some people will fall away, like leaves from a mighty oak in a winter storm. They are not ready. Perhaps, they don’t have the capaciousness for our reluctant and painful transformation.
Let them fall softly.
Shed the judging stories that are not our own and that do not serve us.
We can immerse ourselves, instead, in the sacred grief shared by others across space and through history who know and who, too, raise their fists and stand tall in their truth.
It may take time to find our tribe but when we do, there will be mutual recognition and wordless knowing in the others' eyes. Few things are as simultaneously comforting and painful as this meeting.
We can learn when to rest our weary bodies and put down the weight of grief for awhile, always returning to it, or allow someone else to help us bear the unbearable until we're strong enough. We can turn toward it when it asks to be seen. It will call us, and if we don't answer for a very long time, it will come in the side door and bring other, even undesirable, guests who aren't connected to our truth.
We can reach deep into the center of our core and summon the courage to live in this truth: Our grief is part of us now.
This path will make our lives bigger not smaller.
We can practice fully inhabited grief, letting it move cellularly through our being. It will transform us for sure. Remember that we are already being warily transformed, no matter how much we resist. Things will change; it's a matter of direction and tenor now. Grief, especially when traumatic, can shut us down and disconnect us or it can shatter our hearts into a million pieces of fierce compassion in the world. One way or another, we change.
We can remind ourselves that even on days when it doesn’t feel like it, there is strength in weakness and there is power in surrender.
The energy of grief is endowed with more vital force than the destructive energy of avoidance. And that force will, one day, be the very movement that saves our own lives and maybe the very worthy lives of many others.
And no matter what, no one and nothing can take from us what is ours, once we trust it.
We will not cease to exist if we grieve our truth.
We will cease to exist if we do not.
(c) 2015, 2017, Dr. Joanne Cacciatore