Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Coping With Grief
Today's Woman to Woman topic is on Coping With Grief. I have sorta dropped off the map with this writing challenge of late...too many other irons in the fire. When I knew that grief would be this week's topic I resolved to get back in the saddle and say a few things. But now that it comes time to post I find my feelings regarding more recent losses are simply too raw for public consumption. So instead I'll post a piece I wrote many years back. This was originally published in the journal Thanatos in 1996 under the title "Giving Sorrow Voice." (Fall 1996. Vol. 21/ No 3)Maybe at some point I will write of other things. But for now, this will have to do.
What am I supposed to do with this reawakened aching? How can I put on the expected smiles when I see my older brother taking vows with his new bride? My brother’s first wife, Donna, died two years ago. She was only thirty-four. With her death, my illusions of safety in the world were completely ripped apart.
I felt so ambivalent when we first lost her. I was relieved to finally see her set free from months of cancer’s anguish. Yet, I was simultaneously outraged that she had been taken away. Donna was more than my “sister-in-law.” She was my friend. She was maid of honor at my own wedding. She was my confidant more times than I could count. We used to joking say that her husband (my brother) was okay, but the real reason I savored my relationship with their family was because of the fun I had with her. Since we lived several states apart, we didn’t see each other often. But through letters, phone calls and occasional visits, we kept the torch of friendship burning bright.
Then she got sick. The illness took her inch by painful inch. It was excruciating. There were days of bitterness, weeks of fury, months of pain beyond words. I hated that I was so far away and could not help her. I felt helpless and impotent. Yet, beyond that, what I hated even more was that there seemed to be no clear role for those of us on the periphery of the grief. While everyone rallied around Donna and my brother, no one ever saw how much I was hurting, too. In fact, I was expected to be one of the ones being strong and kind, always available to listen. I didn’t know who to turn to when my own breaking heart needed some listening to.
So I played the role that seemed laid out for me. My sorrow bubbled quietly inside when the final call came, saying it was time. I remained “strong“ as the family converged in Idaho to say goodbye, to witness Donna’s death, and to attend the memorial. As I went through the motions of assisting with the necessary arrangements, the hurt camped out in my soul like a bewildered vagrant, having no clear clue of where to go. In the weeks after the funeral, that same hurt would catch in my throat every time someone would ask “How’s Andy doing? We were so sad to hear about Donna’s death.” No one ever asked how I was doing. No one ever seemed to realize that part of my world had been shattered too.
When time marched on, and my brother found a new love in his life, the whole family was thrilled, myself included. He had been through so much anguish. It was wonderful to see him embracing life again. And yet, when the gilt-edged announcement of his wedding came in the afternoon mail, I suddenly felt the wind knocked out of me. Granted, it had been two years. Still, holding the invitation in my hand opened up the old wound all over again. Some corner of my brain started howling when, finally, I was forced to admit all the way to my bones that Donna truly is gone. Two years worth of stuffed feelings came rushing out with a vengeance. Every scrap of my being throbbed as tears streamed down my face.
I will attend my brother’s wedding, sincerely happy that his new life is blooming with abundance. But I’ve also come to realize I need to listen to and nurture my own aching heart. I loved Donna keenly. And love, by its very nature, is savage business. It leaves our hearts open and vulnerable to pain. Just because I was not the one to lose a spouse does not minimize the very real hurt that losing a dear friend brought me. I thought I was done with grief and mourning. Now I see how much I still need to address the emotions which have festered down deep for all this time. I need to bind up those wounds, but to do so I must first give them voice and validation. Only then can I truly move on and fully heal.
I will honor my memory of my sister-in-law and cherished friend with a wreath of Queen Anne’s lace which I know she treasured. Then I will begin talking about this with folks who’ve proven their grit by supporting me over and through other serious hurts. I will never forget Donna’s musical machine-gun laugh, her love of Christmas, or her passion for her cats. But I will come to terms with the loss of her more fully by genuinely confronting the impact that loss has caused in my life. I will no longer cripple my heartache by denying its legitimacy. It does not matter how long ago her heart stopped beating. Healing seldom fits into carefully laid out timetables. I wasn’t ready before. Today I am. Finally, I begin to fully grieve.
To read what others have had to say on this topic, go to
My Many Colored Days and/or Seeds From My Garden.