Reading in Grief

V-Grrrl mentioned in her comment that when her parents died (within 6 weeks of each other!  God, Dad, be careful!), she had to put all photos of them away, couldn’t drive past their house, couldn’t bear to be reminded.  Not that doing these things helped her to forget, I don’t think anything could do that…but she was too raw to cope otherwise.

Which made me think of the different ways that people grieve.  My uncle made me a lovely collage of photos of my mom, and I find comfort in looking at it.  None of the pictures are of her when she was sick, they’re all of her in her prime, and it comforts me to think of her like that, of her without the burden of an aching back, clogged arteries, damaged lungs, diabetes, sleep disorders, etc.

And now I’m reading The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion.  It’s the story of the first year after her husband unexpectedly died from a heart attack while she was tossing the salad for their dinner.  It’s the story of her daughter’s illness and eventual death (I think…actually, it may be that her daughter died after she completed the writing of the book…I’ll let you know later.)  Does it make me cry to read a book about someone else’s grief, while I’m so freshly consumed by my own?  Of course.  But somehow, I can’t look away.  It’s like when you’re pregnant, and you want to read books about pregnancy.  Or when we were trying to sell our house, I was obsessed with home makeover/real estate shows.  I no longer have any interest in these things, because they’re not current for me.  But this book, this woman’s grief, is speaking to me in a sad way, in a way that I guess I kind of need right now.

My friends Leah and Jeff sent me a book when they heard about my mom’s death, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, by Studs Terkel.  I’ve never heard of Studs, but it’s fun to say his name, and I’m thinking I might want to read this book next.  I’m going to substitute it for another book in my non-fiction challenge, I’m thinking.

This whole thing has been so hard.  Knowing what to do has been so hard.  I will admit that a lot of the stress left my life when she died.  That sounds horrible, I know, but really, those last weeks were so difficult, and I was trying everything I could think of to get her better.  Writing letters to her psychologist about her depression, writing letters to her physical therapist about her PT, writing letters to her doctor about her medications.  Visiting her and trying to be encouraging, bringing her things she might eat.  All while watching none of it work.  None of it.  I felt so helpless, and like maybe, if I could just get it right, something might help.  And of course, nothing did.  It made her feel loved, I hope, but nothing made her better.  Looking back, I think that she just had too many factors stacked up against her, and a recovery was practically impossible.  I know other people who have had bypass surgery and recovered nicely, of course, but none with as many factors as she had.  I think it was just too much.  And I think at some level, she might have known that.  But maybe not. She really wanted to get out of that care facility.  She wanted to go to the farmers’ market with Kate.  She wanted to visit us and tell stories and write on her blog.  She still had a lot of living to do.  Some people will remind me that often people are ready to die, and they let go.  I believe this can be the case.  I do not believe it is always the case.  My friend Rosemary told me, as her father was dying from cancer, that he cried to her that he was NOT ready to die, didn’t want to in any way or form.  And yet, he did.  That’s what I think of with my mom.  I don’t think she wanted to die.  I do think she wanted to be out of pain, and away from the care facility, but not that way.  Not that way.

So now, the stress of trying to fix things has gone.  I’m left with the process of grief, and trying to get her things in order, that sort of thing.  Things with no real importance, it feels like.  (Grief is important, but it’s not like if I get it wrong, something horrible will happen.)  I mean, if I don’t send a death certificate to a creditor in time, who cares?  I don’t.  So there’s been a real shift in my perspective, from stress and frustration, to regret and grieving.  I regret that she’s gone.  I grieve for her.  But at least I know that my actions don’t have dire consequences for her anymore.  That, in and of itself, is a big relief.

15 thoughts on “Reading in Grief

  1. That’s a hard thing to deal with isn’t? Relief that you don’t have to deal with that struggle anymore..but at what cost? I remember feeling guilty about my step dad being gone, because I felt a relief in not having to drive my mother to Davis every other day when he was hospitalized. And relieved that she wasn’t going to live where I didn’t want her to live anymore. Sigh But I know she would have been a whole lot happier if he were still alive and well today. Sigh.

  2. When you have loved someone and lost them, there isn’t a right or wrong way to grieve. I think when grieving, which stops real living, goes on too long then maybe the person needs to look at why; but otherwise, it’s all in what helps. I find when I go through things I like to see how others have done it. I have not read Didion’s book because I really don’t want to think about grief right now and she lost a child. That is the ultimate loss to me– no matter what the age of the child. When someone dies before their time, I think it causes us all to grieve in a collective sigh.

    I felt a relief for my mother when she died that she never had to go through certain things. She would have had a very hard time in a nursing home or even an assisted living center. She went over quickly and my main thought was– now she knows what’s there. Someday I will also cross over. Perhaps I will then see all of them again.

    When my grandmother’s stepbrother was dying, as a very young man of that bad flu right after WWI, she was with him and he saw all the ones who had gone across already. He would tell her, don’t you see them? But of course, she didn’t. I don’t know for sure what comes next but I have heard a lot of stories that make me think this is not the end.

    My husband had a dream a few years ago which wasn’t a vision but a nighttime dream but he doesn’t have a lot like this; so it seemed comforting to me and maybe will to you. Nothing had happened in our family to trigger this dream.

    He saw our daughter as a very old woman and lying on a bed. She was dying. He said I was already in the room, as a spirit, and told him to be still but that our daughter knew he was there, could tell it. He looked at the two still living figures around her and one was young like our granddaughter today and then he realized that one was not her but her daughter. So our daughter had her daughter and granddaughter there to love her and help her across. It was just a dream but it might also be how it is. You were helping your mother on this side and perhaps on the other side there were others there to help her. I can’t prove that, of course. Just feel it might be how it was.

  3. I haven’t been in blogland for awhile but I’m home on a two week period from work and I read this. I’m sorry for your loss.

    I lost my mom over two years ago. The within a year of her death I had a baby and suffered the loss of my marriage. What doesn’t kill us right? My Mom’s illness was long and I felt as though I lost her before she ever died. The woman that was in that nursing home at the age of 59 unable to see or move was not my Mom but a cruel, cruel hand that the deck of life gave to me.

    I found out three weeks after her death that I was pregnant with the little girl who would end up being her namesake. I miss her as much today as the day she died. It’s not always at the forefront of my mind but it’s there. I really feel for you.

    That being said I’ve read this book and I found it depressing. 😉 I’d like to suggest a book to you that I was reading in final months of my Mom’s death and a book that helped me to put the darkness of that period of my life in some perspective. Dark Nights of the Soul by Thomas Moore.

  4. One more thing.

    My experience with the loss of my Mom mirrors what you write about. There was a relief when she finally died. Not only was her suffering gone but I didn’t have to live on the edge of my life as I had been for the year and a half prior. I can’t tell you how many times I would be in a meeting for work and a call would come from my Dad or the hospital telling me to get there ASAP because she wasn’t going to make it. Then like the fighter that she was she would pull through. The roller coaster of illness and trauma was a ride I was gladly willing to get off. What I found is that it’s hard to return to normal though. After living so long within the confines of illness you don’t know how to return to normal. I spent so much time in the hospital and nursing home with her that I didn’t know what to do with myself after I didn’t have to go there so much.

    Thank you for writing so well about this. I still don’t think that I’m able to truly write about my experiences. Good luck.

  5. Thank you for sharing your process with us, J. I’m glad that you can feel the relief, along with all the other, much more difficult parts. In fact, I wouldn’t have thought of that aspect, so I really appreciate your being willing to take us on this journey with you, at least as friends and observers.

  6. If you find that these books are helping you with your mom’s death, then that’s a good thing, right? I’ve read Didion’s political books, but not this one. She used to be known as a west coast treasure, but then she moved to NYC where she’s just Joan Didion. Studs Turkel is also a giant in non-fiction. He’s an interesting guy because his books are often about ordinary people saying extraordinary things — and sometimes they say things that are not too flattering.

    In the books on “loss” department…

    When Neil Peart lost his daughter and wife in the space of 9 month, he basically dropped out of society for about a year to travel (alone, most of the time) and write about the loss he suffered. It’s called Ghost Rider and if you want to read it, it’s on the book shelf.

  7. A few years ago, when my father-in-law died, my family and I spent most of the summer with my mother-in-law at the family’s summer cottage. It was hard, but also healing, to be in a place that was so full of memories of him, where you half-expected him to come around the corner at any moment. I realized how much of him was gone, and how much would always remain, in that place and in all of us. My heart goes out to you and your family.

    That summer I read Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. It’s a remarkable book. I highly recommend it.

  8. Grief is such an intensely personal journey and therefore, no one ever need feel that he or she should explain it or justify it. Sharing it is another thing altogether. I hope that in the coming days, weeks, and months that you find what you need to help you through it, and that in some small way, I can help.

  9. I think it’s normal to feel relief or have your stress be gone. It’s not that you don’t care, it’s that you’re relieved that your Mom’s not suffering anymore.

    Do what you need to do to get through this. Everyone is different and unique in the way they handle things.

    Be kind to yourself – I think that’s very important.

  10. It is so sweet that your uncle did that collage.

    I can imagine the stress you were going through while your mother was sick, trying to take care of her, trying to deal with all her problems, trying to fix her problems, and most likely ignoring your own needs… then suddenly you are left with nothing but your own thoughts and your own emotions.

    The only thing you can do is not blame yourself. When my dad died, I was so angry – I wanted retribution… took me a while to accept…

    I’ll stop rambling now.

    hugs, Heidi

  11. j- i just found out about your mom and i’m just so damn sorry. she was really an inspiration to me as a single mamma and this is just very sad. so very sorry. XOXO

  12. I think it makes so much sense that you are interested and are identifying with books about grieving. Not that I’m an experienced griever, I tend to avoid the emotional part of a loss and stick with the business aspects, but your points about reading about stuff you are currently experiencing really hits home.

    You have been consumed with your mother’s health for so long, and before that you were full of stress about your home. You need a break and to hear you say you are feeling a sense of relief makes me smile. (as morbid as that sounds).

    It sounds like you are dealing with this all so well. You cry when you need to cry and you laugh when you need to laugh. You are talking and writing and knowing when you don’t want to talk anymore. Keep it up! or don’t. Do what you need to do.

    Hugs to you!

  13. Grief is different for everyone, but I think the feelings inside are the same. Grieving is the process of finding a safe spot inside for all the sadness, guilt, and loss. For some it is not talking about it, or recollecting. Burying the pain as deep as possible. Others will build shrines and be consumed with rememberances. You have to do what you have to do to come out of it okay in the end. IMO, that is what a loved one would want anyway.

  14. I read the Year of Magical Thinking when it first came out. It’s a remarkable book. Intensely personal and yet in some ways dispassionate. She dissects her grief like a journalist investigating a story, like a scientist weighing hypotheses.

    The writing was raw and yet polished. It meandered and yet always came back to the point with perfect timing. I think it won the Pulitzer or a National Book Award, didn’t it? Can’t remember. It is a work of art for anyone to read, not just someone dealing with grief.

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