A PhD in Grieving

My mom discovered the grief books that Rob and I have on the bookshelf in our living room. They are IKEA, very lovely floor to ceiling of my childhood fantasy sort of thing – the shelves, not the books. The books were never part of my little girl dreams although curiously, all my Barbies were widows. Vietnam war widows. And that’s because I wasn’t allowed to have Ken dolls and so I improvised with my brother’s G.I. Joe’s, but there is so little you can do with Joe – dressed in camouflage as he was – but send him back to the jungle, where he inevitably died because Walter Cronkite told us every night at dinner that it was a tragedy so many men were dying over there.

But the grief books. Just two made the trip from Iowa with me – my favorites – C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, which is beautiful and moving and so very true, and I Am Grieving As Fast As I Can, which seemed geared more to women older than myself with children grown but I liked her tone and optimism. I don’t recall Rob’s books. Mom hasn’t read them – yet – and might not because I got her Broken Open (which I had heard was good) and is chomping at the bit to get her hands on Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking.

Since she has been here, reading about grief is about all Mom has done when we were at the house. She holes up in the living room or upstairs in the bedroom or hides on the deck – anywhere she can be alone. She finds even light conversation going on while she is reading to be the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.

I have not really let myself be drawn into a grief/widow conversation with her. I am not comfortable at all being the mentor in this area and am done with the idea of mentoring in general. I have come to believe that the grieving will go and do as they will regardless and the best thing is too simply smile benevolently, nod and be around later for the debriefing.

” A year from now I don’t want to be one of those women who is still tearing up and choking whenever she mentions her husband,” she told me.

I tried to tell her that it’s all relative and that if one makes up one’s mind to move on then that’s what happens – more or less – but that we really can’t stop the “tearing and choking” sometimes.

She didn’t want to hear that and changed the subject. But she is seven months out and change. She is at the beginning of make or break and I am not going to discourage her. This is a crucial time and one is what one believes oneself to be – eventually.

Mom is from the camp of “pre-grievers”. Care-takers of loved ones with long term, and usually terminal, illnesses will often say they did some of their grieving along the care-taking route and are more anxious earlier on to get back to some semblance of their former selves and lives or to build new ones.

Pre-grief is a controversial topic among the widowed and many will flatly claim that it is nonsense and those who subscribe to the theory are grief avoiders. First of all, no one can avoid grief and second, it’s a tad presumptuous to define someone else’s experience of loss based solely on your own experience. I personally believe in pre-grief because that is my experience and I know I am in the minority because in our society admitting that there is nothing that can be done medically and preparing for death instead of engaging in pointless and quality of life ending interventions is what most people know of as “normal”. And finally, anticipatory grief is a real and recognized by medical and mental health professionals, and in my opinion is not given its due because we are a society that thinks death should rarely be happening except at the golden age of 90 or so and with loved ones gathered for a final Kodak moment – and maybe there are balloons and fluffy puppies to hand out after with the cake and ice cream.

Right now Mom is plowing through Broken Open, which I only gave her because I’d promised to find the Didion and didn’t. I knew the stories and “suggestions” would be taken too much to heart, but I can’t fault her for wanting to move on. She gave up a lot of years to Dad’s drinking and then his illnesses. She should move on and as fast or slow as she pleases, but she isn’t going move beyond the teary eyes or the sudden loss for words or the memories that pop up like word bubbles over cartoon characters heads. But she’ll figure that out. Everyone does.

12 responses to “A PhD in Grieving

  1. I don’t know that “tearing up and choking” is much of a measure of how well someone is or isn’t doing, anyway. I was dry-eyed when I delivered my eulogy at my husband’s funeral and I have never cried in front of anyone while talking about him, but I felt, and feel, the loss quite intensely. On the other hand, I have an acquaintance (a very sweet woman) who gets teary if I happen to mention him, and not only did she not know him, she didn’t meet me until he’d been gone for a year. If you saw us together, you’d probably think she was the widow, but really it’s just that she’s a crier and I’m not.

  2. You seem to have the right attitude towards your mother’s grief process. I remember thinking, “I will be done grieving in two years.” I thought after two years (god only knows where I came up with that number) that I would stop crying and having grief bursts. The weird anger would disappear, and although it sort of did, it sort of didn’t too.

    I know all about the loaded grief book shelf. I have one of those too. The Didion book is really great. I do hope you find it for her.

    Hugs to you both…

    • I wanted to be done with Will’s death. I’d done nothing but grieve for over two years at that point and I was exhausted and resentful, but I have come to understand that his death is like having a bad knee. I take care in situations where it might be aggravated and I rehab to prevent throwing it out of whack.

      We did find the book at the library and she really likes it.

      • OMG, Annie, that’s effing brilliant!

        [visualize light bulb going on over my head]

        “His death is like having a bad knee.”

        I’ve got two torn ACLs that usually don’t bother me, but when they do… Look for a post about this in the next day or so!

  3. “…done with the idea of mentoring…”

    i imagine that mentoring others on how to process the death of a spouse isn’t quite the same as coaching soccer… and would be emotionally exhausting. letting her do it her way seems healthiest for all…

    • Coaching? No kinda not and it’s not something you can mentor actively. It’s sort of a listen, empathize and lead by example. But everyone experiences emotions of any kind really according to their personality and their life experiences. So I am at a point where I question the idea that there is a norm for grieving rather than there is how I do it, how Rob does it, how Mom does it, etc. And maybe there is overlap but it is unique to each of us.

  4. This comment is totally off-topic, but I wanted to send you a note…

    I have lost many of my fellow bloggers/readers due to a change in my feed address. As you’re one of my favorite blogs, I wanted to let you know about this change in my feed address and URL. The post about it is here: http://anovelmenagerie.com/2009/06/30/blogging-update/. I just didn’t want to lose touch (although, you’re on my reader… so we’re golden, there!)

    Sheri

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