writing about grief and loss
Loss. Death. Grief. We are so often torn by incompleteness, by promises lost, by the future that taunts us with what might have been but cannot now be.
I have had many losses. I am certain you have also. As a mother, I have had to figure out how to help my son handle death. When he was four, his grandmother, Norma, died from colon cancer. Even though my husband John's family lived out of town, we had spent lots of time with them.
My son was upset. Traditional thought says that a four year old "doesn't understand death." I don't know about that.
It was beastly August, I had a badly sprained ankle and we drove to Chicago for the funeral. My in-law's house was full of relatives. I felt awkward on crutches, bereft, useless, and at a loss at how to deal with my son's obvious distress.
We finally had a quiet moment together at the kitchen table. Norma's red address book was on the table. Many birthday, Christmas, Easter, and other occasion cards had been sent to the addresses in that book. It was the large circle of her life. Now, many phone calls had been made to the people in the book informing loved ones of her death.
Jon stood next to me as I opened the book. His tension had been palpable to me all day.
I said to him, "Grandma sure knew a lot of people, didn't she?" He blurted out with a kind of wail, "She didn't even say good-bye to me!"
That cut me to the core of my heart. What could I say? What could I do? I told him that we all thought she was going to be OK for a while. She was going through some more treatment but that she died suddenly and unexpectedly when her heart stopped beating. I didn't tell him, but I think her heart broke at the thought of being even more sick and helpless. She was not a sick and helpless woman. She was an Indiana farm daughter who thrived on doing things for other people.
I told my son that she didn't know she was going to die. She didn't have a chance to say good-bye even to Grandpa.
That, of course, was not sufficient, was it? I dug deep into myself to think of a way to help my son resolve this.
I told him that we could write a good-bye note to her and put it under her favorite rock in her garden. Even though she didn't have a chance to say good-bye to us, we could say good-bye to her.
So we did that. I hobbled out to the garden with my sweet-faced son, we pushed the note under the rock. We both cried for moment. Then he smiled at me.
Our next abrupt encounter with death involved our Husky, Qiviut. Q, as we called her, died one night, unexpectedly. We were baffled and stricken. My husband decided to immediately bury her, before he told me or Jon, who was six at the time. I got Jon ready for school. I debated telling him then that Q had died. I was angry that my husband had buried the dog because I knew that Jon would need to see Q's body.
When Jon came home from school, I told him that Q had died overnight. He didn't believe it. He said that we would have told him in the morning if Q had been dead. He demanded to see the dog. I told him that his Dad had buried Q, but that we could go see her. So, I uncovered part of Q so that Jon could see the reality of the dead body.
That was difficult and wrenching for me, but it was worth it. He became matter-of-fact about it then.
The next encounter with death was Jon's grandfather, Norma's husband, my husband's father. Grandpa John was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. My son was 12. Over the next almost six months, he had a chance to visit his grandfather as he rapidly declined. The last time we saw Grandpa John was in a nursing home. He couldn't move well, couldn't speak, but still could make meaningful eye contact, squeeze hands, and smile. He held onto Jon's hands and stared at him as if trying to pass all the love in the world directly into my son's eyes.
Taking a break, Jon and I walked around through the stubble of a corn field next to the nursing home. He said to me that he would like me to know that if he was ever in a bad accident and there was no hope of his recovering and being able to think, that we shouldn't keep him alive. If there was a hope that he could still think, but that his body might not work right, then we should go ahead and keep him on life support so he could have a chance to recover.
On that warm October day, amidst the cut corn stalks, my 12 year old was telling me things that most adults cannot bring themselves to consider, much less vocalize. I told him that I felt that same way and would want him to do the same for me.
Fortunately, our next encounter with death has been postponed. When Jon was 14, his father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In the inexplicable irony of life, it was the same kind that took his Grandpa John.
My husband has lived for 13 years since his initial diagnoses of glioblastoma multiforme (in January 1995.) Only about 4 people in 100 with that diagnosis are still alive at year 5.
We have all been through two brain surgeries, two kinds of radiation treatment, almost a year of chemotherapy that diminished my husband's white cells and platelets. We have also made it through the night of seizures: Jon came home at about midnight to find his Dad having one grand mal seizure after another. John almost died that night. He has no memory of the next four days, and spotty memory about events in the next few months after that.
Although John went back to work after his first surgery, his second surgery removed about 10% of his right frontal lobe. It removed a lot of his strength and endurance and he has had to slow his life down to what seems like an impossible crawl to him. He cannot do things that used to come easily. He would love to go back to full-time work, but he can't.
Yet, we are together, the three of us. We laugh a lot, have lots of pets, eat dinner together almost every night. We know just how fragile it all is.
I know that my commitment to being open and honest about death, to find ways of resolution in the face of the unresolvable has made a difference for my son. With a child, it is never too soon to begin laying the foundation for coping with loss. The trick, of course, is for you, yourself, to have the ability to do so. If you can't, then it is important to take your reactions to loss seriously and get some support.
Writing helps. I have included links to two pieces I wrote after the traumatic loss of a favorite cat and the death of one of my first parrots. It helps to write about any loss. It takes it out of the crushing ache in your chest and puts it out: clean and orderly. I still hurt when I re-read these pieces, but I still hurt when I think about the losses. I would hurt even more if I carried the pain around and hadn't written anything.
MY FIRST PARROT LOSS
REMEMBERING THE BEST CAT IN THE WORLD
Constance Lee Menefee