Chronic Sorrow

radioI flipped my radio on this morning and came into the middle of an interview on Morning Edition. The woman being interviewed was speaking about guilt and grief, and it took me a few minutes to realize she was recounting her experience with cancer. Her name is Madhulika Sikka, a Producer for NPR, and she was talking about her new book, A Breast Cancer Alphabet. As I listened, more and more of what she said resonated with my own experience with grief. There are many striking similarities between the anguish that comes from the loss of a child and this dreaded disease. I began to relate this to some of the things I have been experiencing these past eight weeks; things anyone going through such a trauma has probably thought about or will encounter.

Like cancer, a tragedy of this magnitude doesn’t discriminate. It can strike anyone, at any time, without warning or precursor. The result of a cancer diagnosis usually means treatment of some kind, with varying prognoses. The result of the death of one’s child is always, always, anguish, grief and sorrow. There is no chemotherapy for grief. No miracle drugs. No radiation, no procedures, no medical science a doctor can wield. This is what makes grief so terrible; it is untreatable. Each of us has to figure it out within themselves. We can get help, support from friends and family, groups, grief counselors, books, blogs, but ultimately, we are on our own here. Everyone will have their own experience, will react differently, will take longer or shorter to come to grips with it. Nevertheless, there are some universal truths here, somewhere, that apply to any sudden, unexpected chronic condition.

Guilt. Oh, my. How many times have I questioned my actions surrounding his death? Like someone newly diagnosed with cancer, the questions pile up. Should I have eaten better, exercised more? Did this or did that to stave off this illness. I ask the same questions. Is there something I could have done, shouldn’t have done to prevent this. Was it something I did or didn’t do? Should I have done more as a parent, done less, taught him better, left him alone? The thousand and one questions I ask myself daily. The OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAanswer is probably no. Each of us has done what we have done. I did the best I could at the time. In hindsight could I have done things differently? Of course. Would it have changed the outcome? Don’t know. Could I have seen the fork in the road and have guided Jake along the correct path? From the future looking back, perhaps. At each juncture, I encouraged him to take the path I thought best for him at the time, but ultimately, he made his own decisions. In my mind I know “It’s not my fault”, but in my heart I will always question that.

Culture. There is a cancer culture in this country. NFL players don pink shoes and wrist bands for a month, people wear pink ribbons, kids have bake sales, there are walks, runs, workshops, seminars, all designed primarily to raise awareness and promote practices that may result in earlier detection and treatment. The ultimate goal is to save lives. There are support groups for patients, family members and friends of patients, before, during and after treatment. There is a continuing dialog, news about the latest breakthroughs, a new discovery, a promising new procedure. Likewise there is a grief culture. Our ribbons are black, but no one wears our shoes. There are no workshops to encourage early detection; it is nothing you can foresee. There are no tests, no seminars about how to adopt a lifestyle that can reduce the risk. When tragedy hits, it’s too late for all of that. Yes, there are groups, walks, seminars, therapists who can help those afflicted with such anguish, but we don’t really bring it out into the open. There are grief awareness days, weeks and months, but you don’t hear about them on prime time TV. I am new to this community, and am just finding out about such things. We don’t teach how to deal with it in advance; it is usually after the fact. The nasty secret is that no one really likes to talk about or even think about death; it is still mostly a taboo subject. Unless, of course, you are dealing with its aftermath, and then you need to talk about it. You become a member of the terrible club no one wants to join, with a culture all its own.

Strength and Bravery. Both cancer patients and grieving parents are told to ‘be strong’, warrior‘be brave’, ‘it gets better with time’. I have had many people tell me I am both strong and brave. Frankly, I don’t feel very strong. Or brave. To the contrary, I feel immensely fragile and weak. I can break down at any time. I have to fight to get out of bed sometimes. I am exhausted all the time. I can usually keep it together enough to get through my day, but I find myself dissolving into tears frequently. I can’t really face a meaningful future yet. Cancer patients are often called warriors, a facet of the cancer culture. Ms. Sikka says she is not a warrior, neither am I. Her take is, by characterizing this as a ‘battle’, if you lose, you can be regarded as not having fought enough, not strong enough. I feel the same way. I am not at war with my grief here. I can never win that fight. Like cancer, there is no cure for grief. Just like a chronic disease, we have to learn to manage our grief, our Chronic Sorrow. It is a lifelong task.

Other’s Expectations. What are you supposed to say to a cancer patient? What do you say to a grieving parent? How do you act? What can you do? I have written about this before, here and here. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but the worst thing someone can say to a grieving parent is  “I know how you feel. My friend’s father/mother/uncle/dog died and they …” There is no comparison, and frankly, I am not in competition with anyone else’s sorrow. My situation is no more or less tragic that someone who lost a father after a long and fruitful life, the parent of a two year old who died of a debilitating illness, the mother of a young adult who committed suicide, the sister of a teenager killed by a drunk driver. No better or worse. Just different. There is nothing anyone can say that makes much difference, even those who have lost children under similar circumstances. Yes, your child died, but he wasn’t my Jake. Our grief is uniquely our own. We can share our stories, we can let each other know that we are not alone in our grief, that we understand, no matter what the other person says or does in their mourning. We can help them with the day-to-day tasks of living, bring a meal, offer to clean their house, drive them somewhere. Quiet, non-judgmental support. That’s about all, but that is often exactly enough.

Our Expectations. How should we feel? What should we do? That is a question each of us has to answer. People have nothing to compare this to. Have no idea of how such calamity will affect them. Should I bravely soldier on, or can I just stay in bed and pull the covers over my head? What is right? We can expect to feel like shit. To look like shit sometimes. We can expect to show our sorrow to everyone we meet without even knowing it. Those who know us can see it, and may ask, “What’s wrong?” Those who don’t know don’t know. We need to learn that we can’t have ‘expectations’. This is uncharted territory, and compasshowever we behave, that’s how we should behave. There is no schedule, no road map, no compass, no protocol, no right or wrong no matter what anyone else says. Different cultures have different ‘norms’ for grieving. Seven days of Shiva. Wear black for a year. Whatever. We need to forge our own norms based on how we feel, what is right for us at any given moment. No one who is in our fellowship of bereavement will find fault with whatever we choose, however we are, whatever we do. Those outside may, but they have no currency in this strange land. They have no idea.

Surviving. People often speak of cancer ‘survivors’. Anyone who has lost a loved one is spoken of surviving. “So and so is survived by …” Survivor is a gross misnomer. You don’t survive such a thing. You can survive a plane crash, a shipwreck, a natural disaster. The implication is that the event is over, and you made it. This event is never over. You don’t survive grief, you don’t survive cancer; you learn how to manage it. I don’t walk around weeping all day; I am managing it to some extent. I expect I will get better as time goes on, but sometimes, just like tonight at dinner, it comes boiling over and pouring out. I can do my best to maintain my composure until I can be alone and let the tears flow, but I will never be free of it. The pool of sorrow will be eternally full; the fountain is always flowing. Sometimes closer to the surface, sometimes a bit more subterranean, but it will always be there. I can relapse at any time, without warning. We never get over it. Ever.

So, do we don our black ribbons and running shoes and Walk for Grief? Do we have bakesalebereavement bake sales? Do we lobby Congress for funding for grief research? Is there even such a thing? Probably not. We have to find our own way through this morass of emotion, this incurable affliction. We depend on the kindness of friends, family, and yes, of strangers. We have to live our lives as best we can; finding what meaning there is in a universe seemingly bereft of meaning. The sun will rise tomorrow, so will you. And so will I.

About edcol52

The Infinite Fountain of Love and Loss flows unceasingly into the pool of memory and sorrow. I created this blog in response to the most dreadful tragedy every parent fears, the death of a child, our 24 year old son, Jake. We are now on an unimagined journey along this road of grief and recovery. If you can find some comfort within these pages, than I will have succeeded in some small measure.
This entry was posted in Coping, Daily Ramblings, Friends and Family, Grief, Healing, Jake Colman, Memory, Observations, Support and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Chronic Sorrow

  1. Pam Thompson says:

    I have subscribed to your blog & just today received an email notifying me of this post. I could have written this post – so many of these thoughts, words, phrases have been “written” in my head asi lay awake waiting for sleep to release me from the torment. I have often said I have become a member of a club I never wanted to join, that nobody would ever want to join. Just before I lost my son, last September, my daughter was I hospital for neurosurgery and I remember driving to work and wondering how on earth I would cope if she didn’t come through. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that just a month later I would be discovering how I would cope when my son took his own life. Nothing can prepare you for the devastation and all of my previous thinking a out how it might be didn’t come anywhere close.
    Thank you for sharing your journey and for letting people know that we are all unique and that there is no right way to grieve.
    Take care. Pam

  2. grahamforeverinmyheart says:

    And yet our children will not rise tomorrow. And therein lies the rub. For all the “healing” that we are struggling with, there will be no healing for our children. One of the sayings that is used to calm and relieve stress (I use it, too) is “one breath at a time”. But our children have taken their last breath, there will be no more for them, so that imagery can easily trigger another flood of tears.
    You are right, we have no ongoing support from the outside world, no special color (I think it should be a muddy gray, not black), nothing. If anything, we are like lepers – everyone’s worst nightmare, the one thing no one can bear to think about. Anyone can think about the possibility of being diagnosed with cancer. In fact, most of us have either had cancer or someone in our family has had it. Losing a child is, however, the ultimate horrifying idea and no one can imagine it. I could never have imagined that there could be so much pain.
    I have also had people tell me how strong I am. I am not strong. I did not choose this new life. I spent all of my adult life crafting an entirely different life. Suddenly everything is gone. I am not suicidal, but I can never be the happy and optimistic person I once was. With my son gone, nothing will ever be as funny, as sweet, as exciting, as promising, or as meaningful again. How can it be when such a vital part of my heart is gone?

    • edcol52 says:

      Yes, the rub. All our memories of our children are wrapped in both joy and sorrow. For me there can never again be the pure joy of coming home, hearing the thunder of little feet behind my front door and the ecstatic cry of “Daddy’s home”, as the door swings open.That was a long time ago, Jake was about 4 or 5, but I can’t even walk into my house without remembering that. The joy of driving along in a golf cart with Jake on a beautiful morning as the sun peers over the horizon; that was just a few weeks ago. It, too, is gone forever. Yes everything changed with that awful telephone call. Nothing is as bright or beautiful, flavorful or meaningful. We did not choose this, but we can choose how we can live from now on. I still haven’t figured that out. Thank you for your heartfelt thoughts. I wish you and your family as much peace as you can find. Do stay in touch.

  3. Pam Thompson says:

    I did comment before but not sure what happened to it.

    I have just received this post via my email subscription. I could very well have written this post. Many of the words, phrases and emotions you have written about have been “written” in my head as I lay awake at night waiting for sleep to release me from the torment. I have often talked about being involuntarily signed up to a club I never wanted to join – in fact, a club that nobody would want to join. Just before my son took his own life last September my daughter underwent some neurosurgery. Driving to work I would wonder how on earth I would cope if she didn’t pull through. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that very soon I would be finding out just how I would cope with losing a child. Nothing can prepare you. In all of those wonderings nothing came remotely close to the devastation and pain that engulfed us.
    Thank you for sharing and for letting others know that we are all unique and there is no right way to grieve.
    Take care. Pam.

    • edcol52 says:

      Pam- Both your posts came through. Thank you for connecting. We are all unique, but we are all so alike in our unimaginable sorrow. I have read posts on other’s blogs that I might have written, in fact have written very similar things unknowingly. That is why I say we are the only ones that can truly understand what someone else is going through, even though each of our children was so special and incomparable. It isn’t that there is no right way to grieve, what I want to say is there is no wrong way to grieve. Each of us has to find our own way to cope with this incomprehensible loss, whatever you do is okay by me. Please keep in touch and be well. I wish you peace.

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