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Unmagical thinking

May 20, 2013

I know people talk about the transformative power of grief, and I know that there’s supposed to be some alchemy whereby you internalize the person you lost so that he or she lives on inside you. You convert the pain into a kind of fond reminiscence, you turn the memories inward then back outward, so that the person–so the logic goes–stays alive in your mind or heart or wherever it is you store memories of someone who’s gone. And then they’re, magically, present. And that is supposed to console you. You conjure a ghostly yet vivid invention, and then you breathe some kind of benevolent nostalgia over it all, and presto. Your beloved person has returned.

Honestly, it sounds wonderful, but I have no idea how people manage to pull this off. Thinking about, as my mother suggests, the “happy times”–as opposed to the day I left her, the last time I saw her–does not help. Looking at pictures of my grandmother, reading her letters, suddenly noticing the way her turns of phrase and habits of thinking turn up constantly in my life does not bring comfort. At all. Thinking about her makes me miserable.

I don’t want to be miserable. I want to move into a stage when I’m able to re-animate her, to talk about her and think about her, without feeling sick at heart. Right now the best thing I can do is try not to think about her at all. In order to accomplish this, I shut down my entire brain and become a minimally functioning moron. I can’t work. I can’t read. I’m not a lot of fun at parties. Today I went to the library, determined to make headway on an assignment, and I spent about two hours drooling and staring at my desk.

One interesting item: It has not occurred to me to want to talk to my ex-husband about any of this. There was a time when I would have automatically confided in him, perhaps even sought comfort in the dregs of our old relationship. He knew my grandmother well, after all, and knew how much I loved her. He has been kind since she died–I don’t mean to imply otherwise–but I have not felt any nostalgic need to hash things over with him, to describe (let’s say) the funeral, or my last visit, or my grief.

The summer right after we separated, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. On the phone with my ex-husband late one night a week or so after I found out, I kept him on the line as I tried to talk myself down off a panicky ledge, until he suddenly interrupted. “I can’t be your emotional lifeline through this,” he said. At the time, it felt like a slap in the face. But whether he was justified or not–and I tend to think he was, actually, justified–is not relevant. What’s relevant is that I needed him then, and I don’t need him now, which seems to indicate that one’s psychic landscape can, over time, drastically change.

So maybe, given enough time, I’ll change again. Maybe remembering my grandmother will eventually bring me comfort and happiness. Not now, not yet, not even (I don’t think) soon. But someday.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. May 21, 2013 12:20 am

    It’s too soon. It’s just way too soon balanced against what you’ve lost. Just cry and feel awful for a while. It’s okay.

  2. May 21, 2013 1:10 am

    Hello Broken

    Firstly, hugs for you on the loss of your grandmother. I’ve read your blog for a long while and your recent postings made my heart ache for you.

    Your beautiful words also made me cry for my grandmother who died what seems like a lifetime ago, when in reality it was 29 years.

    I can’t be one of those who will say it will get better, I’m afraid. I so wish we could convert the pain to a vivid invention. Is it a genetic instruction we are missing, a certain misfit in our DNA?

    How wonderful it would be to conjure up the image and feel like you are holding something tangible for a while. Would it help the pain? I guess we’ll never know…

    Sure, I can usually talk about her to others without sobbing (now), although visiting her grave still has me in tears at the loss of her and the grandfather I never knew. But when I close my eyes to sleep every night I don’t see the horrid images of my last visit to see her at the funeral parlor anymore. I don’t run after a tiny figure clad in that gorgeous teal color, wool overcoat when I think I’ve seen her in the distance on our High Street either. Is that progress after nearly three decades?

    The pain of losing my Nana, to whom I was also very, very close, is still so very raw. Is it because I continually mourn the loss of such a wonderful lady, who’d lived through 2 world wars and the premature death of her husband, without complaint, that the pain is still an open wound? Is it me causing the vicious circle?

    Is it because so much of her lives on in me? My work ethic comes from her, the tiny lady who went out and scrubbed floors for ladies in ‘fancy’ houses to earn enough to supplement her meager pension, who then went on to serve lunch at a boys school, before running errands and shopping for her elderly and infirm neighbors on the way home. I inherited her patience, thank goodness. No matter what else was urgent, she always had time to sit and read, or play games, and as I grew older and full of teenage worries, would sit and calm my fears.

    I was six months pregnant with my only child when she died and I’m sure some of the grief comes from knowing she will never know my son, and that he does not know her, except from our memories and photos. I so dearly wanted to put that tiny, premature, first great grandchild in her arms and see her cradle him with the tenderness she had for everyone.

    I’ve written too much about me and mine, when I wanted to be a consoling email friend. I will finish and say the grief does change and I hope it will morph into something that is bearable, just about, for you. You are not alone..

  3. May 21, 2013 7:14 am

    Is that what one is meant to do with grief? I don’t think so. I think you are left with a hole in your life, and hopefully, over time, you learn to adjust, to accommodate this gaping wound, so that you can skirt around it when you need to, not always be peering over into the brink of it. It doesn’t mean it’s not there, or you don’t feel its presence. But surely the adjustment takes time – alot of time – and as Korinthia said, it’s too soon for you to feel anything other than grief and pain. That the person who has died was a grandparent shouldn’t diminish what you are suffering; she was one of the loves of your live. If your partner died, or a parent or – god forbid – a child, would you expect yourself to be able to transform your pain into something worthy or noble? I don’t think so. So it is with your grandmother. You were kindred spirits; your soul is hurting. Feed it cake and tea, and just take care of it, ok? xx

  4. May 21, 2013 8:41 am

    I think about my sister all the time, but I don’t want some feeling inside of me…I want HER back. I am really sorry for your loss. Your words of heartache are a lovely tribute to your grandmother and your grief. Thinking of you.

  5. May 21, 2013 11:10 am

    I don’t know that thinking of my grandparents ever brings me comfort. Sometimes happiness. I can’t not remember them, though, and I’m grateful they aren’t lost to me in every way. I don’t feel comforted thinking about Auntie Blanche or Robbie or even Betty. I just feel….I just miss them, still. For Robbie it’s more than a decade and I can still get mad that he’s not here, even though he’d be over 100.

  6. Was Living Down Under permalink
    May 21, 2013 11:55 am

    I don’t know that you ever “get over” the death of someone you love. You might come to accept it, and you live with the gap that is left behind. I read a link off Belgian Waffle’s site about grief. I lost my father a few months ago and the essay really resonated with me. Grief is a process, you can’t rush it, you don’t know what part of the process comes next, sometimes you go backwards, sometimes you skip steps but you can’t avoid them. Think about her. Keep thinking about her. Let yourself feel the pain and work through it. It takes time. I can’t offer any advice on how to endure it but as Laundry said, feed it cake and tea and let yourself wallow.

    My dad got sick suddenly and died within a couple of months. He went from being healthy to us hearing “I’m sorry there is nothing we can do for him” in a matter of weeks. Coming to terms with his illness and his subsequent death was a journey that we’re still on. Early on, his brother came to visit to help him (and us) accept this eventuality. He shared this poem by RUMI with us. I’ll share it with you here. I don’t know if it will help you – maybe not today. Maybe tomorrow. So sorry you have to go through this.

    WHEN I DIE, I AM FREE
    Mawlana Jalaluddin RUMI

    When my coffin is being taken out, you must never think I am missing this world.

    Don’t shed any tears, don’t lament or feel sorry: I am not falling into a monster’s abyss.

    When you see my corpse being carried, don’t cry for my leaving,
    I am not leaving: I am arriving at Eternal Love.

    When you leave me in the grave, don’t say goodbye:
    Remember a grave is only a curtain for the paradise behind.

    You’ll only see me descending into a grave: Now watch me rise.
    How can there be an end when the sun sets or the moon goes down?

    It looks like the end, it looks like a sunset, but in reality it is dawn.
    When the grave locks you up, that is when your soul is freed.

    Have you ever seen a seed fallen to earth, not rise with a new life?
    Why should you doubt the rise of a seed named human?

    Have you ever seen a bucket lowered into a well coming back empty?
    Why lament for a soul when it can come back like Joseph from the well.

    When for the last time you close your mouth, your words and soul
    will belong to the world of no place, no time.

    Don’t grieve for me, for now I am free.
    I’m following the path God laid for me.
    I took His hand when I heard Him call, I turned my back and left it all.
    I could not stay another day, to laugh, to love, to work or play.
    If my leaving has left a void, then fill it with remembered joy.
    Be not burdened with times of sorrow, I wish you the sunshine of tomorrow.
    My life’s been full, I savoured much, good friends, good family, a loved one’s touch.
    Lift up your heart and share with me, God wanted me now; He set me free.

  7. telechick permalink
    May 21, 2013 11:58 am

    It’s been 13 months since I lost my husband and only recently have I been able to look at pictures of him and only for a few seconds at a time b/c it was/is so painful. As everyone has said, your grief is still too new and raw to remember the good stuff with anything other than extreme sadness.

    I know how people always say that they’ve become a “better” person b/c of their grieving and I can’t figure this one out. I’m still waiting for my V2.0 to be better than version 1. So far I’m just sadder, tireder and more impatient. The magical internalizing and channeling of my husband’s best qualities has eluded me. I keep hoping that some morning I’ll wake up and be friendly and outgoing and enjoy talking to strangers, but so far, nada.

    hugs.

  8. Shauna permalink
    May 21, 2013 12:52 pm

    I think there will be a hole left in your life, shaped just like your grandmother, if that’s not too cartoonish a way of describing it. At least for me, that’s how it has been in the 16 years since my grandma died. In the immediate, that hole has very sharp edges and it gapes at you wide and hard. Probably with time, the edges will soften and you’ll become accustomed to its presence (or the absence it represents), but that hole, and the awareness of it, will always be there. I had folks tell me it wasn’t “natural” to grieve so much for an 84-year-old grandparent, and so many things, just as you described–phrases, smells, sights, sounds, on and on and on–reminded me hundreds of times a day–that she was gone. I still have those moments, often. As the three great-grandchildren she never lived to know grow into themselves and become really interesting people each in their own way, I mourn harder the fact that they’ll never be loved by her as I and my sister were loved by her. I think you hit it perfectly when you described the loss of being loved being so great. Maybe it’s something certain grandmothers achieve by virtue of the closeness of the relationship and the distance of not being the immediate parent, but I read your description and feel the same profound mutual respect between you and your grandmother as I had with mine, from earliest memory. She knew you deeply and truly, and met you on a level that lots of adults don’t get to with (young) children. The only small comfort I might offer to you is that so many of us grieve similarly and honestly.Your grief and pain are utterly natural, and it just will be that way until maybe the serrated edges get rubbed down a little and become farther apart. It’s painful to read about your loss, because it refreshes and echoes my own feelings approaching 2 decades out. I am so sorry for your loss, and I wish you solace when I know it is indeed hard to come by.

  9. sending hugs permalink
    May 21, 2013 3:42 pm

    Oh, no, dear dear IB, I think everyone here is right: in short, you need a new theory. Immediately. Throw this cheerful nonsense about it all getting better (goodness, this soon???) right out the window. Other times and places have had better rituals, I think, than ours does now — I’ve sometimes thought it might be good to wear full mourning for a while, for example. A daily marker of loss, recognized. But even with rituals, surely there is no formula? And how can anything that matters have a quick kind of alchemy, even if there is some kind of slow maybe gradual or maybe erratic and bumpy change over time whereby you create a new present around the hole — ? It sounds like you’re in need of more time to be miserable or numb, I hope you can give yourself that gift for a while, or every now and then, and as needed…

  10. Missing my son permalink
    May 21, 2013 4:39 pm

    I agree with all of the above about it being too soon. Now is the time to grieve and let out your sorrow over your loss.

    There will come a time, soon enough, when you will have to accept the fact that you are sad because of YOUR loss, and that is when you must stop crying and try to pull yourself together. One mustn’t wallow in self pity, or you run the risk of losing sight of what was good about the person who set off the grief cycle to begin with.

    I have lost a great many people who were dear to me for reasons that I don’t understand, in spite of having a huge expanse of years with which to ponder the Whys and What-Ifs. It gets easier to get through the day to day but there are still things that happen to bring up a memory and I will cry again. It is a natural thing to do.

    Don’t be ashamed or afraid to be human.

  11. Jenny permalink
    May 22, 2013 12:51 pm

    I am someone who does actually believe that loss can be transformed into something new. I think we see it in nature — death into life, every spring, as one of many many instances — but those leaves and blossoms take an entire year to get here, you know. Other processes, like the cicadas, take fifteen, or seventeen. We are part of nature. Choose the metaphor that fits your heart.

    And don’t forget that this is not a foolish idealism. Nature acknowledges death and decay before transforming it. It’s messy and often painful and ugly before it is beautiful. There is no magic here, no way in which what is based on loss makes the loss disappear. Instead, the loss feeds and nourishes the transformation, and is therefore still ever present.

    I adopted my daughter from China after years of infertility. I lost something. She lost more. Our beautiful, close family is based on loss, and we never forget it. We remember it all the time, and are fed by it in a strange and miraculous way we could never have foreseen. This will be you, too.

  12. May 23, 2013 9:29 pm

    i’ve never gone in for that “she lives inside you” bullshit; it always felt to me like one of those things people say that really doesn’t mean anything. not that it isn’t said with genuine compassion, because i’m sure it usually is, but it certainly didn’t help me to hear it. I just finished pre-reading “the fault in our stars” for my 10-year-old (it’s great, but not for a 10-yr-old); there’s a quote in it that goes something like, “grief doesn’t change you, it reveals you.” i have found that to be true.

    i’ve always been the sort of person who wants to believe–in god, in an afterlife, in an ultimately benevolent purpose and direction to this vast incomprehensible universe. alas, my skeptical nature has made belief largely impossible. i want more than anything to believe that the people we lose are still out there somewhere, loving us, waiting for our reunion, but so far, having lost only one person who was truly and deeply essential to me, i think the truth is that they are simply gone. what remains is whatever we can hang on to–the memories, the words, the feelings they left us with. more than i can say, i wish my mother in law was here to tell me–and to tell her son–how to get through the marital odyssey of our separation. i have some ideas what she would say, but that’s all i have. she isn’t alive inside me. she can’t talk to me anymore. she is gone, and that sucks, pure and simple. it will be five years next month, and the pain is definitely different; quieter, less frequent, less stunning. maybe that’s what people mean when they say your loved ones become a part of you–they mean the pain of that loss, because it does become part of you. it seeps into your cells and inhabits you, and it goes with you wherever life takes you. after a while you stop noticing it, like you don’t notice your hand or your eyelashes, unless something drags your attention back to it. and then it’s revealed all over again, like you’ve never seen it before.

    love this. http://www.elise.com/q/poetry/naomi.htm

  13. Laura permalink
    May 26, 2013 3:09 pm

    I am a little ahead of you on your journey of grief. My grandmother died about 15 months ago at the ripe age of 91 — just one day before my 41st birthday and my son’s 8th birthday. The pain is still raw for me and my children. We still cannot look at pictures without getting sad, and sometimes my children are inconsolable in their grief. I had the foresight to save grandma’s favorite sweater — the one she was wearing the first time she met and held my son. When the kids are keenly aware of their loss, they wrap themselves in grandma’s sweater to get a “hug” from her. They have slept with it many nights in the last year, and I must admit, that I’ve wrapped myself in her sweater trying to feel her presence.

    I cannot explain it, but earlier this spring, I came home from work to find the distinctive scent of grandma’s house. I’ve never smelled it here before, or since, and neither my husband nor my kids could smell it. I am not sure what to think of it, but I’d like to believe that she was reaching out from beyond to offer me some comfort by letting me know that she is watching over us all. Since then, my grief has softened somewhat. I hope that you soon find some small comfort that helps you start smoothing the rough edges of your grief.

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