Grief has long terrified me. Too raw. Too uncontrollable. As a 7-year-old in 1963, I gleaned my first lesson in the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Over four days, my mother and grandmother — like most Americans — sat before the television weeping for the dead president and his family. I’d never seen such a flood of emotion at home — or anywhere, actually. I fled to my bedroom.
When Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) was shot and killed five years later during his presidential primary campaign, my father broke down, the first and only time I saw him cry. Fathers did not shed tears, at least not in the “Father Knows Best” TV version of what I understood it meant to be a dad.
Then, in adulthood, the number of friends and colleagues who became ill or even worse, died — by suicide, car wrecks, gun violence, cancer and HIV/AIDS — began to mount. Loss compounded loss; I tried my best to escape from my burgeoning grief, fearful it would consume me. I tried different strategies, from drinking too much to finding a therapist. Part of me didn’t want to feel the pain of loss; another part of me understood that I couldn’t move forward without processing those emotions.
Four years ago, my mother died after a long illness. I had never actually been in someone’s presence at the moment of passing. When she died on that snowy January evening, it felt as though mom sneaked out the back door, closing it ever so gently behind her. When I realized her breath had finally stopped, I cried quietly. As ridiculous as it sounds, I feared any louder expression of emotion might disturb her eternal slumber.
Immediately after she died, the required list of “to-dos” kept me too busy to feel much of anything, including loss or grief. Friends and family had to be notified. A memorial service planned. An obituary written. The etiquette of death preoccupied me in just the way Emily Post had once described: “the rituals observed after the death of a loved one or friend salve our grief.”
Yet, for those who had to deal with death during the pandemic, almost none of these rituals could take place: everywhere funerals, shivas and wakes were canceled or postponed. Early on, I even feared sending a handwritten sympathy note to an elderly widow, afraid the virus would linger on the cardstock and that I might inadvertently infect her. (That was before testing for covid-19 was readily available and when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that doorknobs, countertops and light switches — any high touch surface — could transmit the coronavirus.)
In my case, after completing those end-of-life rituals for my mother, the pain of real grief began. At the outset, it was what I had long feared: raw and messy. My face was now the one swollen by crying.
Long before my mother died, I’d read a slim book, “Grief: A Novel,” by Andrew Holleran, that long stayed with me. Holleran, whose earlier work chronicled the AIDS epidemic, creates characters for whom grief serves as a lifeline, ironic as that sounds, to those whom they’ve lost. The novel focuses on two men — an exhausted, lonely professor whose invalid mother has recently died and his new landlord, a fellow who has lost most of his friends to AIDS.
In one passage, the two characters discuss the nature of grief, ironically framing it as a way to maintain connection with the dearly departed:
The professor: “[G]rief is what you have after someone you love dies. It’s the only thing left of that person. Your love for, your missing, them. And as long as you have that, you’re not alone — you have them.”
The landlord: “But they’re gone!”
The professor: “Not if you grieve. . . . Your grief is the substitute for their presence on earth. Your grief IS their presence on earth.”
In the years since my mother died, temblors of grief have continued — sometimes on the surface, but more often deep within me. That they can come on without warning is no shock. That they pain me is also expected. The unfolding surprise has been that they no longer upset me. I’ve allowed myself to feel the pain of loss and I came to learn, albeit slowly and painfully, that grief is not to fear. If anything, it’s to be embraced. Grief had become an unexpected and comforting way to stay connected to the mother I’d lost.
I still miss mom and her daily exhortations, like: “Where’s my coffee?” Or: “Bring me the Times!” I “talk” to her, and she calls out to me. My siblings and I tell tales of our mother that bring her into the present. In these moments, I find myself vacillating between sorrow and a bittersweet joy.
Psychologist Patty O’Grady has written that remembering happy, even funny, stories about our lost loved ones can bring “at least moments of brief respite.” It’s true, and the grief I feel for my mother is often shaken with two parts sadness and a twist of humor. I can be sad and still laugh — and remember.
Laura Kellison Wallace, a Chapel Hill, N.C., social worker whose practice focuses on “transitions and loss” counseling, has helped me understand this apprehension of grief, explaining that it is actually “the healthiest and most natural expression of loss and longing.” She admits the pain can be excruciating, but emphasizes it’s far better than the alternatives of anger, addiction and anxiety.
In a way, her view is similar to the beautiful passage Victor Hugo wrote in “Les Miserables,” when he described seeking “to transform the grief that looks down into the grave by showing it the grief that looks up to the stars.”
That’s where I’d like to believe my mother is — somewhere up there in the stars. But she also inhabits one other place. In Andrew Holleran’s book, the lonely professor has a final realization: The dead exist “in our hearts.”
Over and over, I’ve returned to this novel during this past year as our collective losses due to covid-19 mounted, its message curiously soothing: “Your grief is the substitute for their presence on earth.”