The Experience of Grief

The other morning I looked at my BlackBerry and saw an e-mail from my mother. “At last!” I thought. I’ve missed her so much. Then I caught myself. The e-mail couldn’t be from my mother. My mother died a month ago.

The e-mail was from a publicist with the same first name: Barbara. The name was all that had showed up on the screen.

My mother died of metastatic colorectal cancer sometime before 3 p.m. on Christmas Day. I can’t say the exact time, because none of us thought to look at a clock for some time after she stopped breathing. She was in a hospital bed in the living room of my parents’ house (now my father’s house) in Connecticut with my father, my two younger brothers, and me. She had been unconscious for five days. She opened her eyes only when we moved her, which caused her extreme pain, and so we began to move her less and less, despite cautions from the hospice nurses about bedsores.

For several weeks before her death, my mother had been experiencing some confusion due to ammonia building up in her brain as her liver began to fail. And yet, irrationally, I am confident my mother knew what day it was when she died. I believe she knew we were around her. And I believe she chose to die when she did. Christmas was her favorite day of the year; she loved the morning ritual of walking the dogs, making coffee as we all waited impatiently for her to be ready, then slowly opening presents, drawing the gift-giving out for hours. This year, she couldn’t walk the dogs or make coffee, but her bed was in the room where our tree was, and as we opened presents that morning, she made a madrigal of quiet sounds, as if to indicate that she was with us.

Since my mother’s death, I have been in grief. I walk down the street; I answer my phone; I brush my hair; I manage, at times, to look like a normal person, but I don’t feel normal. I am not surprised to find that it is a lonely life: After all, the person who brought me into the world is gone. But it is more than that. I feel not just that I am but that the world around me is deeply unprepared to deal with grief. Nearly every day I get e-mails from people who write: “I hope you’re doing well.” It’s a kind sentiment, and yet sometimes it angers me. I am not OK. Nor do I find much relief in the well-meant refrain that at least my mother is “no longer suffering.” Mainly, I feel one thing: My mother is dead, and I want her back. I really want her back—sometimes so intensely that I don’t even want to heal. At least, not yet.

Nothing about the past losses I have experienced prepared me for the loss of my mother. Even knowing that she would die did not prepare me in the least. A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable. What makes it worse is that my mother was young: 55. The loss I feel stems partly from feeling robbed of 20 more years with her I’d always imagined having.

I say this knowing it sounds melodramatic. This is part of the complexity of grief: A piece of you recognizes it is an extreme state, an altered state, yet a large part of you is entirely subject to its demands. I am aware that I am one of the lucky ones. I am an adult. My mother had a good life. We had insurance that allowed us to treat her cancer and to keep her as comfortable as possible before she died. And in the past year, I got to know my mother as never before. I went with her to the hospital and bought her lunch while she had chemotherapy, searching for juices that wouldn’t sting the sores in her mouth. We went to a spiritual doctor who made her sing and passed crystals over her body. We shopped for new clothes together, standing frankly in our underwear in the changing room after years of being shyly polite with our bodies. I crawled into bed with her and stroked her hair when she cried in frustration that she couldn’t go to work. I grew to love my mother in ways I never had. Some of the new intimacy came from finding myself in a caretaking role where, before, I had been the one taken care of. But much of it came from being forced into openness by our sense that time was passing. Every time we had a cup of coffee together (when she was well enough to drink coffee), I thought, against my will: This could be the last time I have coffee with my mother.

Grief is common, as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude brusquely reminds him. We know it exists in our midst. But I am suddenly aware of how difficult it is for us to confront it. And to the degree that we do want to confront it, we do so in the form of self-help: We want to heal our grief. We want to achieve an emotional recovery. We want our grief to be teleological, and we’ve assigned it five tidy stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Yet as we’ve come to frame grief as a psychological process, we’ve also made it more private. Many Americans don’t mourn in public anymore—we don’t wear black, we don’t beat our chests and wail. We may—I have done it—weep and rail privately, in the middle of the night. But we don’t have the rituals of public mourning around which the individual experience of grief were once constellated.

And in the weeks since my mother died, I have felt acutely the lack of these rituals. I was not prepared for how hard I would find it to re-enter the slipstream of contemporary life, our world of constant connectivity and immediacy, so ill-suited to reflection. I envy my Jewish friends the ritual of saying kaddish — a ritual that seems perfectly conceived, with its built-in support group and its ceremonious designation of time each day devoted to remembering the lost person.

So I began wondering: What does it mean to grieve in a culture that—for many of us, at least—has few ceremonies for observing it? What is it actually like to grieve? In a series of journals over the next few weeks, I’ll delve into these questions and also look at the literature of grieving, from memoirs to medical texts. I’ll be doing so from an intellectual perspective, but also from a personal one: I want to write about grief from the inside out. I will be writing about my grief, of course, and I don’t pretend that it is universal. But I hope these journals will reflect something about the paradox of loss, with its monumental sublimity and microscopic intimacy.

What has your grief looked like?  How have you experienced it, avoided it, embraced it? Please share your thoughts here with us.

Special thanks to Meghan O’Rourke for sharing this piece with our community.  Article excerpted from Meghan’s book The Long Goodbye, a memoir and cultural study of grief.  Visit her website here.

Photo Credit.

21 Comments:

  1. kerry neuberger said on September 15, 2011 at 11:33 pm ... #

    Meghan,

    So much of what you have here is so very true. My husband died this past Christmas Eve. after battling Hodgkin’s Lymphoma consistently since 2003. No matter that we knew it was coming, I to was in no way prepared for it. I did all the assuring to him we’d be fine, said all the right things to him so he wouldn’t be more worried/stressed than needed, but the whole while was lying through my teeth, simply to try to make things easier for him.

    I also tend to be frustrated by people’s, ” how are you doing, thinking of yous,” etc. When they ask things part of me wants to just yell back do you really want to know, ’cause I’d be glad to tell you how much it totally sucks. Those who offer the, “he’s in a better place.” really should just turn and run away from me – I don’t care that he’s there, I want him here with me and our children.

    I want my life back, I want us to be at the point we were, beginning to enjoy things, travel, be at our sons’ activities. Together. I don’t want to be doing this alone, walking into a gym, finding a place to sit in the bleachers with friends, yet having to acknowledge the “looks” and the “how are you doings”.

    But as society dictates, I put on a calm face and keep my grief hidden, cause when they ask “how are you doing”, they really, truly don’t want to know because deep down they don’t want to think about what it will be like when they are alone w/out their spouse & best friend.

    Well written.

    Kerry

  2. Cath said on September 20, 2011 at 6:05 am ... #

    Meghan and Kerry
    I totally understand where you are coming from I lost my husband-my best friend and soul mate- to throyid cancer very quickly. only three weeks after diagnoses he was gone. He was only 49 and I 48 I feel robbed of so many years that I always thought we would have. I have had so many amazing things said to me…..”You must wonder what you did wrong in a past life!”….”you are lucky because you are still young and will find someone else!” Sometimes i want to scream in their faces SHUT UP JUST SHUT UP!!!!
    i can so relate to everything you have both said
    Thank you
    Cath xxxxx

  3. Barbara said on September 20, 2011 at 8:26 am ... #

    Dear Meghan,
    I am saddened to hear of your loss & have worked through my own losses and helped clients grieve for many years. I am Jewish and agree that rituals help. Even if you are not Jewish, you can create your own rituals. Make up your own Kaddish & say it. Ask close friends and family to join you in the ritual.
    I’ve had clients who went to the opera with their siblings on the anniversary of their parent’s death or on what would have been their birthday, because their parent loved opera and they plan to make it a shared ritual.
    When people ask how you are doing, let them know that it’s still hard. My brother died just under three months ago, he had a benign brain tumor removed 16 years ago & was healthy since then. But the tumor came back and was no longer benign. We thought we would have some time to fight the battle with him, but he died within 2 months of the discovery of the recurrence. I too feel robbed of the years I expected to have with him.
    His wife’s sister, who is also a psychologist, has had 2 bouts with cancer herself, and was very supportive through the ordeal. She swam in August a mile in my brother’s name, he was a daily swimmer, to raise funds for hospice care. She is having her 50th birthday and a celebration of life on October 15th. I will be going and it will be the 1st “celebration” I will be attending. I don’t feel ready for celebrations. I RSVP’d that I will be coming but told her It may be hard for me, even though I know my brother would want me to be there for her. She wrote back and said she too will be grieving that he can not be there in person, but will be there in spirit.
    So, don’t be afraid to let the well wishers know how you feel. They want to help & may not know what to say. Sometimes there just are not the right words. Let them know & they can support you.
    Thank you for sharing your grief so openly, it helps.
    Barbara

  4. Marylou said on September 21, 2011 at 11:01 am ... #

    Meghan,

    First, I’d like to thank you for taking the time and energy to write this amazing article that speaks so clearly and honestly about the experience of grief…to me at least. I sincerely feel as if you’ve so eloquently articulated all that has been going on in my heart and mind since my mother’s death.

    This is only my second time going on this website and the title of your article immediately jumped out at me. Yours is the first article I’ve read after several months of not checking out this website. After reading it, I can’t help but be amazed at how well I can relate to you and how many similarities we share! Somehow I just KNOW that I was meant to read your article.

    I’ve had a similar experience to your BlackBerry story. It was also around a month after my mother’s passing that I received a call from her. My heart immediately jumped for joy when I saw her name show up on my screen, and I just thought, “Wow! Mom is calling me! I’m getting a call from Mom!” The excitement wore off quickly and my heart sank once I remembered that she passed away and that it was just my father calling me with her phone.

    My mother also passed away from a medical condition at the age of 56. I feel robbed of the years of life I dreamed of having with her. I’ve always imagined her being present when I would get married or when I would have children of my own… I’ve had moments like you had where I would think, “This could be the last time…” I distinctly remember thinking, “This could be the last Thanksgiving we have together,” and it did turn out to be that way. It was painful watching her live with her illness. She was slowly deteriorating before my eyes and there was nothing I could do about it. There is one similarity I wish we shared…I’m glad that your mother was surrounded by her loved ones when she passed away. Unfortunately, my mother passed away unexpectedly, alone at home, with no one by her side.

    Most of what you wrote about your experience after your mother’s passing is what I have been experiencing. I’ve been walking around putting on a brave, strong, “normal” face, but it’s exhausting because I certainly don’t feel brave, strong, or normal! I feel that I have to do it though because that’s what everyone expects of me, or that’s what they prefer I do because they wouldn’t know how to deal with me otherwise. I’ve definitely found that “the world around me is deeply unprepared to deal with grief.”

    One person at my church thought I was okay after the funeral. He thought that everything went back to normal after we buried my mother. I was incredulous that he would even think such a thought. I mean, REALLY?! How do you go back to “normal” after losing such a significant part of your life?! There is no going back. I feel that it’s a matter of creating a “new” normal, or a new state of equilibrium…

    I could go on and on, but I just want to thank you again for writing this article and for bringing me some relief from the burden of believing that no one really understands what I am going through. It’s a pleasant surprise to be reminded that I am not alone. I can’t wait to read more of your thoughts and ideas concerning your experience with grief.

  5. Angela said on September 28, 2011 at 2:57 pm ... #

    I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your Mom. She was very young. I too lost my Mom almost five years ago and I still can’t believe she’s gone forever. She was 81 but I would still give my life to just have one more day with her. Nothing you say sounds melodramatic to me but it’s true people really don’t understand the loss. My advice is to just keep putting one foot in front of the other and in time the terrible pain you feel now will lessen.

  6. Helen said on September 28, 2011 at 5:08 pm ... #

    Meghan
    Your experience sounds oh so familiar. My mom died 13 years ago at 58. I had a baby at home and another one on the way I was so totally brutally unprepared for the emotions of grief I remember asking myself. How do I prepare my children to handle this better than I have. My dad died 3 weeks ago. The emptiness in your heart and the physical desire to touch or hear from them is so real. I thought it would be easier this time After all it is my second time going through this. The only part that makes it easier is that I know that at the end of grief comes the part where remembering your Mom will make you happy and smile. So cry on the street when something reminds you of her.

    Those that have grieved will understand that your heart is aching. That your world has changed and that tears are as real as laughter. This is the legacy I am leaving my girls. I shared the loss of my dad with them. I cry in front of them and at dinner and on the street. I remind them that it is ok….that when you lose one who loved you so unconditionally the wound takes time to heal.
    And that I will dance in the rain……

    Helen

  7. Danella said on December 13, 2011 at 8:18 pm ... #

    I agree, it doesn’t matter how long a person has battled and for how long you have known about it, the end result is still devastating. My mom battle brain cancer for a year and my family and I watched her slowly decline until she didn’t even recognize or remember who we were….and she forgot how to do everything..the last two weeks of her life were the worst. It is so reassuring to know there are other people out there who can share in what I and many others have gone through.

  8. Terri said on December 15, 2011 at 10:17 pm ... #

    Thank you for putting into words –‘so eloquently — the feelings that have been emerging. My husband passed away on Nov 30, 2011 after deign with a combination of Progressive Bulbar Palsy, neuropathy and alcohol abuse. After losing muscle strength in legs and lungs, losing the ability to effectively eat, swallow and speak, then the ability to take care of his hygiene needs, he wanted so much to just “be done”. He passed away in peace and (hopefully) comfort. Now that it’s over all I want is to have him back — I think I could do the caretaking a little longer if he would just come back! But I know that’s not true and I’m being silly, I just want him here to talk to and share
    Y day. I miss him so much!

    I

  9. Chris said on January 12, 2012 at 5:51 am ... #

    Wow, this is very well written. I feel very similar to all of you. I know I have to act “happy” and “well adjusted” every day for my friends and everyone else I meet. I just don’t know how much longer I can carry on the charade. I’m tired of making others feel comfortable when I am the one suffering. Selfish I know, I just feel trapped and alone like no one else can relate to me anymore and I am just an entirely different person.

  10. Terri said on January 18, 2012 at 12:34 am ... #

    The last comment makes me think that grief counseling might be a good idea . I have options of the ALS group or the hospice group in addition to counseling through my health care provider. I’m typically not a joiner, so my opt for health care … I don’t know yet.

  11. Terri said on January 18, 2012 at 12:36 am ... #

    I mis-typed—grief counseling might not be a BAD idea…sorry!!!

  12. Terri said on January 18, 2012 at 12:37 am ... #

    You can see how @&”$;’Ed up I am!!!

  13. Kate said on February 2, 2012 at 1:17 am ... #

    I completely agree with all the comments. My mom died less than 3 months ago suddenly of a heart attack. Every one expects my Dad to be suffering, but seems to have forgotten that as kids we suffer too. My teachers have been very understanding, but since my grades are still decent and I try and be happy at school they don’t see the pain I am still going through.

    Since my mother’s death, I have been in grief. I walk down the street; I answer my phone; I brush my hair; I manage, at times, to look like a normal person, but I don’t feel normal. I am not surprised to find that it is a lonely life: After all, the person who brought me into the world is gone. But it is more than that. I feel not just that I am but that the world around me is deeply unprepared to deal with grief. Nearly every day I get e-mails from people who write: “I hope you’re doing well.” It’s a kind sentiment, and yet sometimes it angers me. I am not OK. Nor do I find much relief in the well-meant refrain that at least my mother is “no longer suffering.” Mainly, I feel one thing: My mother is dead, and I want her back. I really want her back—sometimes so intensely that I don’t even want to heal. At least, not yet.

    Nothing about the past losses I have experienced prepared me for the loss of my mother. Even knowing that she would die did not prepare me in the least. A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable. What makes it worse is that my mother was young: 55. The loss I feel stems partly from feeling robbed of 20 more years with her I’d always imagined having.

    I completely agree with wearing a mask. The world expects us to go back to normal life within a couple of weeks and forget our grief in work. My mother was also young – only 57 – and we had no warning. My mom dropped me off at school, and 3 hours later my Dad told me my Mom had a heart attack and died. I know that time will bring some relief but it will be a long time for me.

  14. Kate said on February 2, 2012 at 1:18 am ... #

    The middle two paragraphs are from the original article.

  15. Doreen Brooks said on February 27, 2012 at 9:28 pm ... #

    Your article touched me deeply and all those feelings I also experienced. I lost my mom 35 years ago when I was 15 and she was only 38. I was lost for many years trying to find my way through this life without the person who was my whole world. She didn’t see me graduate high school or college or get married, (although I did wear her wedding dress and felt in a small way she was with me) or the births of my children. I feel so robbed of a life we could have had together. My mom also died at home after an 18 month battle with breast cancer. There are many days when I still feel lost and life is lonely without her. Even though I have since married and had two children and they have given me much joy. The ache of my mom’s loss never leaves me. How I wish I could hear her voice again, there is no recording of it saved anywhere. I keep her photo by my bedside to keep her memory with me everyday. I wish she got to share my life and meet my family. I have also had my own battle with breast cancer, that was a difficult to deal with. I recalled how strong she was in her battle and I think she gave me the strength I needed to get through mine. I was in denial my whole life that it could also happen to me. I do feel very lucky that I am here 6 years later, but its still makes me sad she wasn’t able to have more time in this life.

  16. Brittainy said on March 14, 2012 at 10:22 pm ... #

    My mother died from cancer as well. It’s like standing on train tracks, you see the train but it still hurts so badly when it hits you. She was 37 when she died. I was ten. I’m thirteen now, I’ve worn black three years straight. You can think of it as grieving publicly, I do, but nobody really knows that’s why I’m like this.

  17. Terri said on April 27, 2012 at 11:36 pm ... #

    I have been attending grief counseling in a group setting and have been surprised at the helpfulness. Granted, I need to take responsibility for speaking up on topics that are impacting me at the time…

  18. Charlotte said on February 21, 2013 at 4:22 pm ... #

    I lost my 47 year old husband to cancer about seven months ago. He was diagnosed in the spring and gone before the end of summer even with surgeries and treatments. I ache for me and I ache for our daughter, a toddler, who will have no memories of her father. She was just a little over a year old when he died. I think this part of grief will hurt forever and painfully so.

    I attended a grief support group for several weeks, but it’s very hard being a young widow who is now a single parent when every other woman in the room is a woman in her 60s and up. We all hurt, yes, but we face such different issues. Their children will have memories of their father, my child will only have what I can tell her about him.

    I think most of my friends and coworkers believe I am getting on with my life (the outward signs, at any rate), but they really do not get that grief is a part of almost every moment of my life. The change has been tremendous. They have no idea. A part of me is glad that they do not know this pain, but at other times I feel a bit resentful when I see their intact family–it just reminds me of what I no longer have.

  19. Meredith said on April 10, 2013 at 4:59 pm ... #

    You offered the best description that I’ve ever read, I believe, of what it means to be “in grief”: “I walk down the street; I answer my phone; I brush my hair; I manage, at times, to look like a normal person, but I don’t feel normal.” I understand what you mean. Sometimes I feel as though because I go through the motions of looking “normal,” people think that I am. Then when I have a bad day, when I wake up in tears and have to fight them all day (for reasons, quite often, even I can’t name), people are mystified. They thought I was “over it already.”

    That’s what I did not realize about grief: There is no expiration date on it. It takes as long as it takes. It works the way it wants (needs?) to work. You don’t get over it, or work through it – it assimilates into your life and becomes part of you. It changes you.

  20. Kay said on May 15, 2013 at 10:42 pm ... #

    Your article is truly breathtaking, simply because of how honest it is and how well you have captured the emotions of grief. I don’t think there is anything in life that can even come close to preparing you for the death of someone you deeply love. I’ve had a very hard time dealing with the death of my grandmother, and many of the things you wrote ring so true to me. I feel very guilty in my grief because of how old my grandmother was, she was 91 when she passed away, especially after reading so many comments where people lost loved ones who were far too young to lose their lives.

    My grandmother lived a very long and very happy life, but it still doesn’t seem to make up for the reality of losing a woman I loved deeper than anyone, a true soul mate in my life. I grew up with a single mother who had on and off again substance abuse problems, and my grandmother was without a doubt an angel in my life. I spent every weekend with her growing up and many times during the week she picked me up from school and spent the evening with me. We were the best of friends and I can’t think of a single time where she ever let me down or hurt my feelings. We went on vacation together, we played games, went to movies, cooked, shopped…everything together. I trusted her with my life and the last few years of hers I really tried to be there for her in every way she needed me. We often talked for hours and sometimes just sat silently in eachother’s company, loving even the most simple of things we did with one other. She knew all my deepest secrets and I loved hearing her share stories of her life growing up. I miss my grandmother with every breath I take and every moment feels so wrong living without her. I would do anything to have her back, even for just a moment. To see her smile, or hold her beautiful soft hands. It feels like I would give up my left arm just to comb her hair again or put a sweater on for her. She was my greatest joy and my deepest love and I miss her more than I could ever put into words. Thank you so much to everyone who commented on this article, and especially to you for writing it.

  21. Anne said on May 8, 2014 at 11:22 am ... #

    I lost my Mom on March 15th, 2014. She had been sick in hospital with a UTI, but was actually getting better. She was 84, and had some health problems typical of a person that age, yet I was shocked when she passed away from a heart attack. I was and still am, in a kind of trance, even though I go through the motions of changing my clothes and taking showers every day. In reality though, I could care less about my appearance. Mom was a huge presence in my life, we did everything together, shopping, cooking, sorting out stuff, but mostly talking, and I could talk about anything with her, no matter how knarly or upsetting. She could make all the bad things and worries go away after 5 minutes of talking to her. She did so much for us (my siblings and I, I am the youngest, and we lost our Dad to cancer when I was little), fought for us if we had a problem, bought us stuff (constantly), made dental appointments for us and nagged us to go, fed us really well, paid for college for us, for courses outside of college, and protected us in every way possible. She literally never stopped helping us. She had a beautiful sparkly personality, despite all the health issues, and she just kept on fighting. We were very alike, so we bickered with each other too, we had lively disagreements! But my love for her was profound, and still is. I don’t feel safe anymore. We used to talk on the phone 3 times a day. I would give my right arm for just 5 minutes more with her, to tell that I loved her and that I would do anything for her. I miss her with every breath I take. I love her. Quote from W.H Auden:’S/He was my North, my South, my East and West, My working week and Sunday rest, My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.’

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