Last night I saw a short television spot on the animals in the local Humane Society. Within seconds I was in tears. The program lasted all of ten minutes. I cried for half an hour. Am I incurably sentimental? Hormonally challenged? I don’t think so. I think I’m experiencing old grief.
No one tells you about the gritty underside of grief. They think they do, in the achy breaky, hurting songs of failed relationships, that transcend the pain with rhythm or humour or beauty, but nothing can describe the daily damage of living with grief.
Sometimes people don’t know what they’re feeling at the time because they don’t have permission. My parents were really invested in happy children. When pets died or we moved, I saw that my parents couldn’t cope with my feelings of loss. I tried not to make it harder for them; I cried in secret and swallowed my tears as much as I could. They thought and I imagined, that I was dealing with sadness well. But years later when I see lost or abandoned animals on TV, I weep for Fluffy, Goldie, Frisky, Robin and a host of other childhood losses. Grief doesn’t go away because we repress it. It’s in our bones.
The good news is that grief diminishes with time, although it diminishes with agonizing slowness. The bad news is you have to go through it. It can’t be boxed up permanently. The other news is, the world will never be the same. With the first loss we lose our innocence. Eventually it becomes clear that everything goes, pets and people, parents, friends, lovers and children. That’s life’s guarantee: we’ll lose everything. They die, we die.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross points out that loss can take us into adulthood. Perfectly true, only I didn’t want to be adult. I wanted to stay young, happy and safe. I was twenty-eight when my mother died at fifty-two. She’d been in a coma caused by a brain tumour for nearly two weeks; her death was a release, not a surprise. What was a surprise, though, was the change in our family dynamic once she’d gone. I hadn’t realized until then that my mother was the heart of the family, the sun at the centre of its universe. Without her strong gravitational pull, the rest of us were mere planets, spinning further and further away from each other. By the time my father remarried, nine months after her death, we seemed more like polite acquaintances than the close-knit family I had known. So in losing my mother I lost my sense of place, the feeling of coming home, of belonging, of family. I inherited guilt with the grief too, because I’d never known how important my mother was to the whole until after she died.
There was no family dynamic to lose when my husband died. We had no children, only each other. But I learned, in the months and years following his death, that everything that had once been important to me, the shreds of my birth family, my friends and my work, no longer mattered. I couldn’t “live” for any of them and I wasn’t interested in living for myself. I tried, until every day was more exhausting than the day before and I could barely get out of bed. I found a therapist and assumed that I must be getting better as the months passed, even though I still walked through my days like a robot.
Four years later I decided it was past time to scatter his ashes, which had been sitting in a box on a bookshelf ever since the week after the funeral. On a sunny summer day I drove north and hiked along the Bruce Trail until I found a high place overlooking Georgian Bay, where we had spent wonderful days hiking, camping, swimming and sailing in our eight years together. I sat down on the rocks with the container of ashes in my lap. A warm wind blew through a forest of green pines, cedars and poplars below me. The water shone blue and restless beyond the trees. I opened the black plastic box. Then I froze.
What I wanted to do was to strip off my clothes, lie naked on the rocks in the sunshine and upend the box of gritty gray granules over me, inhaling the dust, absorbing the grit. I wanted him, on top of me, inside me, in my hair and eyes and in every sweaty crease in my body. I wanted to roll in what was left of him so thoroughly that his essence could never be washed away. I wept as I hadn’t wept in months, convulsed with grief.
After an hour or so I calmed down enough to tip the ashes into the trees below me. But the moment wasn’t the completion I had imagined. It was a marker of how little I had moved on. The ashes were scattered but the grief remained just under the skin of my life.
Eventually I left my life in Canada and moved to the Findhorn Foundation, a New Age spiritual community in northern Scotland. It’s a place where people are open, accepting and compassionate. I lived there for nearly six years, confronting all the feelings that I’d denied most of my life. By the time my visa had ended and I returned to Canada I could feel that the bits of grit from the past that I’d imagined clinging to me forever, had become pearls. The natural kind, lumpy and irregular, but my own. Grief and denial have become acceptance, understanding and maturity. I wear those “pearls”, like a necklace, without regret. I value my life. Grief does change, and we change with it. Now I’m aware of the winter to come and every day feels like autumn, full of colour and light and beauty.