So this is what grief is really all about. It’s about a broken heart. It’s about loneliness, and hopelessness. It’s about endings, and ending it all. But it’s also about recovery, and renewal.
I experienced all the classic symptoms of grief when Marlene died, and for the year or more after she died. And maybe yet, two, three years on, and perhaps more years still. The so-called stages happened, but not in order, more all at once. I pretended I was unaffected by the loss and total shakeup of my life. I did what I do best when it comes to relationships, I compartmentalize. The loss of my life’s companion did not hurt if I didn’t think about it.
But I fell into the depths of depression when Emily broke my heart. I have not yet fully compartmentalized her. It might have been easier if only she had said ‘sorry’, and let me go gently.
I read many books on grief. I took notes, I saved quotes. I made lists of yet more books I resolved to read about grief. I doubt I’ll ever go back there.
Here are some of the things I learned about grief, and myself, during this long journey of discovery and transition:
Grief does not neatly follow the five, or seven or nine stages as Kubler-Ross, Kurt Lewin, Peter Block et al., proffered and the naïve Doug Jordan proselytized. All these emotions and elements may be experienced, but more jumbled and cycled, many times.
Grief (of a loved one, and especially one’s spouse) is debilitating, paralyzing, other worldly. You’re living in this world, going through the motions, but you’re not really here.
The griever is supposed to disappear from real life, expected to grieve away in silence and aloneness. Perhaps wear sackcloth and black and never smile. He needs to ‘take hold of himself’. Oh, others don’t mean it, but if the griever exhibits any sort of behaviour displays other than the conventional stoic he is silently censored, a raised eyebrow. He may not fall in love again too soon, ‘it’s just a rebound’. Family and friends may be more concerned about their own feelings, and perhaps appearances, than concern for the griever.
Grief is an extremely personal experience; no-one experiences it quite the same way. People may have some general sense of grief but they can’t know unless they have experienced it personally themselves. I know now that empathy is an extremely difficult thing for people to manifest, try though they might, or even understand. It is impossible to know how someone feels unless you have experienced something like it yourself.
Here’s what the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has to say about grief, and its variants. Note the distinction between grieving and mourning: attendees at the funeral mourn, the surviving spouse goes on suffering.
Grieve is the strongest of these verbs, implying deep mental anguish or suffering, often endured alone and in silence (she grieved for years over the loss of her baby). Mourn is more formal and often more public; although it implies deep emotion felt over a period of time, that emotion may be more ceremonial than sincere (the people mourned the loss of their leader). Lament comes from a Latin word meaning to wail or weep, and it therefore suggests a vocal or verbal expression of loss (The shrieking women lamented their husbands’ deaths). Bemoan also suggests suppressed or inarticulate sounds of grief, often expressing regret or disapproval (to bemoan one’s fate). Sorrow combines deep sadness with regret and often pertains to a less tragic loss than grieve or mourn (sorrow over a lost love), while rue has even stronger connotations of regret and repentance (she rued the day she was born).
A year after Marlene died I finally cracked open The Emperor of all Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee. I couldn’t face it while Marlene had cancer, and I didn’t have the energy for it in the months after she died. But I finally read it, cover to cover. I now know everything I need to know about cancer. And especially, I know it was not Marlene’s fault. I don’t think it was mine either, though stress can be a factor in compromising the body’s immune system so that it misses a mutated gene. But I don’t grieve of over that, nor harbour guilt. There are more important parts of grief than that.
I read C.S. Lewis. It gave me some measure of solace to think that Lewis had a change of heart from his lifelong role as a Christian apologist. He reconciled the death of his ‘mother’, Joy, in 1941 (The Problem with Pain) but became a man of doubt with the death of his wife, Jane, in 1963 (A Grief Observed). I read The Still Point of the Turning World, Emily Rapp, but found only her last chapter useful as she talked about Lewis.
I read Julian Barnes, Levels of Life, another brilliant and spare rendering of the pain of the loss of your life’s partner. Here are two quotes that stay with me:
‘In life, the world divides into those who have endured grief and those who haven’t. Until you have endured grief, you cannot understand.
‘Every love story is a potential grief story. If not at first, then later. If not for one, then for the other. Sometimes, for both.’
I reread, William Bridges, Transitions, and David Burns, Feeling Good. I read a little book on grief published by the Anglican Church of Canada; imagine that.
I found Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made unhelpful; it did not explain the neurochemistry of grief.
And one of the most interesting is a slim volume of poems and pithy insights that had been lurking in my library for decades, waiting for the moment when I might need it. How to Survive the Loss of a Love, Colgrove, Bloomfield and McWilliams.
I read a dozen other booksand manuals about dealing with grief and loss, many of which were empty recipe books to me. The most useful thing I got from Didion (A Year of Magical Thinking, quite a famous book) was this: ‘Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be.’
And here are two more, borrowed from somewhere, that have stayed:
‘Grief is the last gift of love.’
‘Grief is the love that you didn’t get to give, or have.’
The grief of divorce vs grief through the death of a spouse
My bibliotherapy continued through the months of my involvement with Emily but began to wane as I imagined her moving with me to my new house, my new life. I’m fairly certain, now, that my love affair with Emily was in many ways transference: I needed her to fill a void in my life after losing Marlene, a void that may perhaps have been there for years. Nevertheless, it was a love affair built on a foundation of a longtime relationship, and attraction, attraction we both held. I fell deeply in love with her, or at least some part of me did. In my selfish need to heal my wounds I was in no condition to judge clearly what was happening to me, or to her. I did not, could not, decipher what was going on in her mind; that might be true of any love affair, we are totally self-absorbed, not truly aware of the other’s mentality. But what of Emily’s mind? What were her unmet needs, and conflicts? Of this we can only speculate, as her side of the story remains untold. All we can know is what actions she took, and only surmise at her feelings. I am convinced she loved me, but, she was far more conflicted than I. I have no doubt she was in great pain when she made the decision she thought she must, even though, in the way she ended it, even more damage was done.
Regardless, the pain of a broken heart was hard and deep and seemingly never-ending.
I have often wondered at the difference there might be between the loss of a lover through death, and the loss of a lover through severing. Is one more awful than the other? Of course the answer will vary with every person and every particular experience. And in all cases, the classic aphorism is probably correct – time is the great healer, and so another variable in gauging grief. Marlene and I had found an equilibrium in our marriage, finely balancing the good and the bad, the joys and the disappointments. And then she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. We had three years to live with this, and to grieve. When she died, much of my grieving had already been done.
With Emily, the bonds of love were fragile, and still in the throes of mystery and excitement. And unresolved and even unidentified issues. But Emily was living a parallel life, postponing hard decisions by living a lie. When I forced the issue, she struggled and then finally made the decision to end it with me. And with that decision stopped any further contact. I have never stopped grieving the loss of her, even though time has dulled the pain of rejection and unrealized potential.
I have come to this conclusion: sudden separation, and no contact whatsoever, is worse than the death of your spouse. Your spouse has died. There is nothing that can be done about that. But your lost lover is still alive somewhere, and that thought makes the ending not final. Acceptance is hard; the yearning continues, but disappointment is a poor prophet.
A literary acquaintance left me with these words which I want to repeat:
Survival, with some grace and chutzpah, is a bloody miracle, always. I know two things to be true: Grief is permanent, forever, because the love is; And what we do with the cruel tragedy of loss shapes the rest of our lives. It reminds me of Sartre’s line: “Freedom is what we do to what happens to us”. Rick Prashaw
I went to a Christmas memorial service two years after Marlene died. It was a lot easier than the previous year. And I thought this minister more thoughtful and balanced. One thing that resonated with me, two things actually: ‘we never stop grieving, it just gets quieter.’ And, ‘[he] doesn’t believe in closure’. If there’s new information that explain things you didn’t understand before, that helps; but there is no closure. It’s not like closing the lid of a box, or a coffin.
I know what grief is. Maybe I’ve had enough of grief.
What I need to do now is let it go. Put it in that trusty compartment I have for storing things and leave it alone. Perhaps open it once in a while, but just for a peek. Wait until it is okay to take out some memory, savour it, but not lapse into sadness, and put it back.
Now I need to get on with my life, just as Emily advised when she broke it off with me so abruptly. It was brutal advice. But it is correct.