Saturday, May 19, 2012

On Grief and Healing

I’ve put off writing this blog post because I suspect it will make some people angry and make others feel threatened because it challenges the way they have defined themselves over the years. But I feel compelled to share it with you now, so here goes.

Everyone suffers loss at some point. Sooner or later, someone you love dies. That is a painful, unavoidable fact of life. What I find every bit as painful as the loss itself is watching the people I love - the ones who are still living - refuse to heal from such a loss.

I bet you know someone who suffered from the death of a loved one, perhaps many years ago, but who lives as if that person died just yesterday. They are tormented by fresh grief every morning when they wake. They just can’t heal. Perhaps they even appear to work at keeping that grief alive, focusing on it regularly to keep it fresh, prodding at it the way we poke our tongue at a rotting tooth just to make sure it still hurts.

Before you start steaming and wondering who the hell I am to say such things, let me share one thing with you. My daughter Anna died in my arms in June 1997, three months before her sixth birthday. I know grief.

I know grief so great it feels like you can’t breathe, then you realize you have no choice but to go on breathing, which is even worse. I know grief so great you wish you could die, but know you can’t. I know the special kind of grief called survivor guilt, which says that if anyone should have died, it should have been me, not her. We’re not supposed to outlive our children.

I have a clue.

And I’m not saying anyone, ever, should just get over it. But healing needs to happen. It may take years, but it can happen. It should happen.

It can happen only if you don’t keep tearing at the wound, ripping the scab off, refusing to let it heal.

And it’s not disrespectful to their memory to heal. I promise.

I remember counting the days…days until the end of the year Anna died. Days until the first anniversary of her death, her next birthday, Christmas. I remember learning to function again, finding normal in life one tiny piece at a time when it felt like nothing would ever be normal again.

About five years after she died, her birthday came and I didn’t need to cry. A few years after that, her birthday passed and I didn’t realize it until the next day. Then the anniversary of her death passed and I missed it.

I was healing.

I will admit, I glanced around furtively to see if anyone would criticize me for daring to move on. There is intense pressure in our culture to define ourselves by our wounds. We name ourselves by them: adult child of an alcoholic; incest victim; angel mother. It’s a powerful force that requires us to look always to the past, never to the future.

That force disturbed me; it’s a sick society that makes someone out to be a bad person for daring to heal.

But I decided to do what was best for me, for my mental and physical health, regardless of what anyone else thought. I decided to heal, to move on. Because only when you move past the grief can you truly appreciate the time you had with that person. Only then can your heart open enough that you know, deeply, what a blessing they were in your life. Until then, all you can feel is the pain because that’s what your heart is filled with. Believe me, I know.

I turned to mythology, the archetypal symbols of life writ large on the human psyche, to help me find my way along a path no one wanted me to take. I chose one archetype in particular and took it to heart.

The image of the dying-and-reborn god is a powerful one that can help us move through hard times. Whether you look to Jesus, Odin, Dionysus, Adonis or Osiris, the promise of resurrection remains. We are all wounded nigh unto death yet, if we allow ourselves to do so, we can live again. The sun rises in the morning, the barley sprouts anew, we breathe in again after we exhale. Every moment is a rebirth if you let it be so.

I cannot imagine my sweet Anna saying to me, “Yes, Mommy, you should always mourn me and never recover. Always be sad. Build your life around your grief and let it define you so it eats away at you until you die.” She would never wish that. What I can hear her saying, very clearly, is this:

“We will always love each other. Let that be enough.”