THE PATIENCE OF GRIEF

Our sorrow will end when we see them again

Grief lasts a lifetime. Mourning, on the other hand, has specific times and places — a wake, a funeral, a memorial. These are the cultural responses to death. Grief is personal.

Grief washes over us, recedes, returns in gale force, stays for a period, recedes again, yet always remains. “Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions,” wrote Joan Didion, “that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”

In the first moments of acute sorrow, we may naturally turn to the facile answers that any Sunday School student could recite: “Live Life,” “There Is an End,” “Blessed Assurance,” or “Overcome.” Each may be true yet none is helpful. Over time their tenuous hope smacks of false bonhomie and the modern need to fix, solve, or heal that which cannot be healed.

Those around us may try to help despite their discomfort, and bless them for it. Some may be genuinely concerned. Others frustrated or inconvenienced.

Many mean well but can at times be insensitive. They may urge us to move on, heal, get over it. Even therapists that should know better sometimes focus on stages, steps and other nonsense. Such advice fails completely.

Hearing this we may come to doubt ourselves. We may fear for our sanity or our emotional stability. They sound so certain, we think. Perhaps it is “just in our heads” after all.

It is not.

Qualified, authoritative professionals that have also known loss acknowledge that “healing” from a profound loss is impossible. To lose someone is to change every aspect of who and what we are. This is true with all forms of grief, particularly the loss of a child. “Bereaved parents do not ‘recover’ in the sense of returning to who they were before the death,” wrote Ida Martison in the professional journal Death Studies. “Instead, they appear to change as they integrate the loss into their lives.”

My daughter, Jess, died in 2015. To this day, I am still Jessica’s father. This was not all that I was nor is it all that I am. At the same time, just as Jess is part of me, my identity as her father will never change. Nor will I ever stop hoping for the moment that I hold her in my arms again.

Until then, I wait. I live my life, I find moments of happiness and quiet joys. I face each morning. To love for a lifetime means to feel loss for a lifetime. This love is our truth; this loss, our reality.

Ours is a cruel but necessary patience. We make peace with the idea that someday we will be with them in fact as well as in spirit. Our expectations and hopes look to a day far ahead but as close as the next moment. Our sorrow will end when we see them again.

Until then, we make peace with the patience of grief.

Sources

Therese A. Rando, “Individual and Couples Treatment Following the Death of Child,” in Rando, ed., Parental Loss of a Child (Research Press, 1986): 343.
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage, 2006): 27.
Ida Martison, Betty Davies, Sandra McClowry, “Parental Depression Following the Death of a Child,” Death Studies 15(3) (1989): 259–67.
Catherine Seigal, Bereaved Parents and their Continuing Bonds: Love after Death (Kingsley, 2017): 10, 12.
Photo: Herzi Pinki.

Author and translator David Bannon has appeared on Discovery, A&E, History Channel, NPR, Fox News and in The Wall Street Journal. His daughter died in 2015.