Life is filled with cycles. There is the cycle of the seasons throughout the year, spring, summer, autumn, winter. The cycle of months. There is the cycle of the days in the week. Within each day is the cycle of hours: dawn, day, evening, night. Cycles rule all of us whether we know it or not. When do we wake? When do we eat? When do we tire and go to sleep? Cycles for everyone and every living thing. Plants know when to bloom, when to bear fruit, when to lie dormant. Animals know when to breed, when to migrate, when to hibernate. All ruled by cycles. All predictable and consistent. Day always follows night, spring always follows winter.
Grief has its own cycles, but they are wildly inconsistent and unpredictable. The classic “five stages of grief” (originally developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross through her work with terminally ill patients): denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, don’t line up like spring, summer, fall, and winter. They aren’t the phases of the moon, one flowing into the other. It isn’t a checklist, it’s not instructions like putting together a bookshelf from Ikea. Everyone has their own rhythm and progression. They repeat in an endless loop always changing the order: denial, anger, depression, anger, denial, depression, acceptance, denial, anger, bargaining, anger, acceptance, denial, bargaining, depression, anger, denial, acceptance, denial, acceptance, anger, and so on. I can go through all five stages in a single day, in a single hour. But the one constant throughout all the stages is the sorrow and sadness. The feeling of ineffable loss. The terrible waste of it all.
Much has been written on and about this classic model, there are others too: J. William Worden’s “Tasks of Mourning”, Therese Rando’s “Six R’s”, the “Dual Process” developed by Margaret Stroebe and Henk Strut. In all of them, dealing with grief is an ongoing process. An open-ended process. The loss of a child, or any great loss, isn’t something you just ‘get over’ in time. It takes work. One is expected to confront their emotions, to accept the reality of the loss, to work through the pain, to relinquish attachments, to relocate emotions, to shift our focus, to readjust, to accept a new reality, to move on. There is no timetable, no schedule, no estimated time of arrival. You just keep on travelling, with no expectation of arrival. In fact, there is no arriving, just the journey now.
When I am in the anger cycle, part of the anger is that I now have a lifelong task that I didn’t ask for. I no longer have the luxury of just living, working, playing, relaxing. No, I have to ‘work on the process’, will be ‘processing’ forever. I had so much else to do, I didn’t need another lifetime project. Thanks, Universe, for the gift that just keeps on giving. Acceptance? Not likely. I will never accept it willingly. Get over it? No way.
Another week ends, another week begins. I have read that the first six months are the most difficult. I have also read that the second year is worse than the first. I don’t have to read any books to become an expert on grief. I already am. It doesn’t really matter. It can’t be worse than that first awful moment, and yet it can. It is. As the ripples spread out in the pool, we don’t know what effect they will have in a week, a month, a year. We will only know when the ripples wash over us. For now, we just go through the cycles wondering which one is coming next.
I am Graham’s father, from the Grief and Loss website. Your loss is beyond words. Like you, we had invested every ounce of our being into his development. He was a Latin scholar, accomplished classical and jazz pianist, and mathematical whiz. He read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings at age 8. His accomplishments, awards, and trophies line our walls. At the time of his death, he was about to return to Rice University to complete his Senior year in Computer Engineering.
I offer the following only as an observation; there can be no consolation for what you have been thrown into.
What has struck me so profoundly lately, some 18 months after Graham was torn from our family, has less to do with the symptoms of this pain – the loneliness, the constant tears, the loss of sleep, the gripping shame – and more to do with its dimensions.
As an aside, let me state that Graham was a person of great measure. By which I mean, he measured everything! From the youngest age, he was fascinated with the tallest building, the oldest living person (he wrote her a letter at age 8, in French, with help of a dictionary and his French-speaking grandfather), the richest man (Bill Gates became his idol for many reasons), the highest IQ, etc. Of course, this quantitative orientation had a lot to do with him becoming a passionate lover of math, music, and the pulse of life in all its forms.
It strikes me as darkly ironic, then, that this thing that so occupies my being, unquestionably the largest, heaviest, and most omni-present thing I have ever encountered, is…an absence. It is an absence which is more present than the present. I am continually amazed at how ubiquitous it is; how it insinuates so thoroughly and fluidly every crevice of my consciousness. It’s as if a large crystal globe had been dropped, and, as it hit the floor, exploded into a million directions, the splinters embedding themselves invisibly into every aspect of my life. As I finish my shower and stretch the towel across my back, I recall wrapping up a freshly-scrubbed cherub, barely two years old, as he wriggled in delight; our silly mutt has eyes that are the same shade as Graham’s; Graham and a cadre of his techie pals could have fixed the Obamacare website in a week, and would have asked nothing for it, etc.
Our lives are divided into many spheres, but by convention, we keep these separate. Yet Graham’s absence infiltrates these disparate spheres with a laughing randomness, making a mockery of convention and throwing into great relief how absurd our petty attempts to compartmentalize life are under the glare of such overwhelming loss. Nothing is as present as his absence. How is it that something I have been living with so intimately, remains so ineffable?
Brian- You have described it perfectly. The absence is a palpable thing that permeates our every waking moment. I went to an International Pen Show this afternoon with a friend whose daughter was a classmate of Jakes in elementary school. While I walked the aisles all I could think about was how much Jake would have loved it. There was so much he loved. I sense from your beautiful essay above that your Graham and our Jake were very much alike. Occupied with the biggest of thoughts, wanting to know how everything worked, and possessed with the ability to understand the most complex and deepest concepts. They might have been friends. Thank you for sharing your insights, you are several months ahead of us on this journey, you give me a glimpse of what lies in store.
I frankly can’t say the loss becomes any less acute. If anything, it becomes more profound as each passing day, event, and season makes his absence more pronounced. At this point, I’ve concluded there are two kinds of people: those who have lost children, and those who have not.
I’m not certain how therapeutic it has been, but I constructed a memorial garden around a Dawn Redwood which Graham and I planted for Tu B’shevat several years ago. I’m now starting a second (woodland) garden as yet another expression of beauty in his honor. Building a library in Jake’s memory is an equally beautiful gesture.
Your eloquent reflections are as heart-rending and accurate as any I have read. Our sons were great dreamers.
My grief counselor studied with Kubler-Ross, who told him she didn’t mean the stages to be taken so literally. But at least she started the conversation. If we don’t think about death, we’ll live a shallow life because what will matter except what’s external, what we have, what we look like? In this culture, we’re so damn unprepared for death…yet, I don’t know how you can be “prepared” for the death of your child. Maybe you can just think about it differently. Philip says, “Mom, I’m showing you what death isn’t; Natalie (my daughter) is showing you what life is.”
This weekend will be two years. I am sorry you’ve joined me and so many, many, many others on this path. We are each alone with our grief, but we are not alone in spirit. I’ve found people who truly care, and it matters.
It’s been 13 years since our little angel left this world. Some moments are still harder than others, but most days I live on solid ground now. Thankfully when the ground does fall out from beneath my feet, I have an amazing husband and good friends who I can hang on to and will pull me up.
There are no good words to say because this path we walk is not one I would want for anyone ever and yet we are on it. Know that you don’t walk alone.