THE WEIGHT OF GRIEF
By NANCY PATRICK
I did not experience the weight and burden of grief until I was an adult. Although one of my uncles and a grandfather died during my childhood, their deaths did not directly affect me because they did not play an active role in my life. My family had experienced generally good health and few accidents, so surprise overtook me when I began experiencing the pain of grief myself.
My most painful grief did not relate to the death of someone. It occurred when the dreams I had for my son shattered during his early twenties. By design, my husband and I had an only child. I admit that I became obsessed with my child and motherhood. I lost sight of the importance of many other things and poured all my energies into building a wonderful future for my child.
I think I behaved this way because I had had an unhappy childhood and determined that I would provide my child with all the things I felt I had missed, thus ensuring his happiness and success. (You correctly detect presumption on my part.) I really thought I could program my child and his future, completely disregarding my own limitations and the power of individual natures. I had a mission: my son would have his excellent education, pursue a meaningful career, marry a wonderful young woman, provide me with lovely grandchildren, and generally live happily ever after.
To sum up the result of my mission, my son accomplished several items on the list, but others turned out disastrously. In spite of all my efforts at perfection, my daughter-in-law chose to divorce him and take their daughter with her. When they first split up, I became physically and emotionally ill. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t stop crying, and I had difficulty working. I abruptly left several gatherings because my tears would suddenly erupt from my eyes and stream down my cheeks. I could not control my emotions.
I discovered throughout the saga of the divorce and child custody issues that the death of a dream can devastate a person as much as death. I saw all my work, goals, and efforts toward perfection swirl down a drain. I also learned that grief has no pattern or time limit. No one can predict how long someone will grieve over an incident. After two years of my tears and major depression, my husband told me I had to move on. I had to let it go. Now, twenty years later, I still grieve. I don’t cry all the time, but as I observe young families doing activities together, I sometimes wonder what went wrong in my own life.
Obviously, most people associate grief with death. I began a journey of death-related grief in 2008 when my parents lost their independence. For a few years, I managed to care for them in their home, but eventually they had to move to a nursing facility. That in itself caused extreme grief. Children all hope and pray that their parents will never need nursing care. Unfortunately, many cannot avoid this move. Not only do the caregivers deal with the awareness of their parents’ health and loss of independence, but they also feel guilty for their parents’ unhappiness in a care home.
My parents were in their nursing home two years before my dad died, followed by my mother sixteen months later. During those years in the nursing home, I lost two aunts, one cousin, and one sister-in-law—six deaths in less than two years. I became so overwhelmed with grief that I lost the desire to live. I could not see a purpose in continuing my own life without these integral parts of my life. In addition to the grief itself, fatigue overtook me. I had run on full speed for several years without a break. After my parents died, I suddenly found myself with no purpose.
I recently learned a story from one of my classmates with whom I connect on Facebook. She began posting beautiful and elaborate Christmas decorations all over her home this season. The photos’ beauty and tenderness made me feel sad that I did not share her enthusiasm or energy for the season. I complimented her on her talent and enthusiasm and lamented my own apathy. She then shared with me a deeply sad event in her past. Thirteen years ago, just before Christmas, her infant grandson died of SIDS. She and her husband had not celebrated Christmas for over a decade as they grieved this terrible loss. After they retired and moved to their new home, they decided to rejoin the celebration that so many enjoy.
My friend’s experience illustrates the overwhelming power of grief. One of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, wrote often of grief. One of the poems that pierces my heart follows:
My life closed twice before its close—
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me
So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
Dickinson implies that some grief is so great as to extinguish an aspect of a person’s life (i.e., deaths of dreams, marriages, relationships) even though the person continues living. Twice in her life, she had experienced death-like grief and now ponders if she must experience that pain again. She perceives that grief compares to hell itself—“so huge, so hopeless.”
No one escapes grief in this life. We all face it in varying degrees and at different times; however, we must accept its reality and power as we love those around us who grieve. We must never set time limits or expectations for those experiencing the burden of loss.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing.