Recently I heard from one of my high school classmates. He now lives with his family in Nepal. Going to an international school in Japan—where I grew up—many of my now forty-something-years-old schoolmates lead exotic lives. You can find them scattered over the world doing really interesting things. And then there I am, settled comfortably after a season of traveling, safe now in North Carolina.
My friend commented (which was quite nice) on reading in the high school alumni newsletter that my son had died. He was so sorry and went on to say he had just returned from his mother’s funeral. “So,” he wrote, “I am going through the grieving process.”
It was good to hear from this high school friend and nothing against him, but the phrase “the grieving process” which has become a cliché in itself, got to me.
So I pursued it further, trying to hit the nail on the head, so to speak, as to why this phrase has caused my skin to grow clammy ever since I joined this griever’s path.
Cheese is processed. Sausage, too. These are molded and made into products. In grief we are not processed as though a food item and then delivered as a final product to the shelves of the grocery store. We aren’t put on an assembly line or a conveyor belt and pieced together.
Instead, I like to think that we are a growing creation, changing, due to the trauma and tragedy of losing a child or loved one. We were thrown into this rocky journey of darkness and pain against our will. We made the choice to survive. And we learn how to be bolder and more compassionate. We have new ideals. Old phrases and expressions may bother us. Daniel was brain dead when we made the excruciating decision to take him off of the respirator. So for me to hear a person joke about being “brain dead” due to their slip-up or mistake, doesn’t ever make me smile. I don’t even like to use the word “deadline.”
Sure, we’ve been told about the steps or stages of grief—shock and denial and finally, acceptance. With all due respect to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, I will never have acceptance of the awful truth of his death. I do acknowledge his death. He is, after all, obviously, no longer here. But I won’t accept it as I would a birthday gift or an invitation to dinner.
It is a grieving life I’ve entered. It’s a path of rocky trails, heavy with anguish. It’s agonizing music that penetrates every fiber and the loud noise can take years to fade. It is not a path with “closure,” another word that bristles my skin because it implies we will finish being affected by our loved one’s death and move off the grieving path, never to feel sorrow again for the impact their death has made in our daily lives.
Grief is a zigzag of the soul. You never know when tears will be triggered or when a word or memory will take you back, way back, and you are lost in thought for moments. Parents who have buried their children decades ago still feel this zigzag in the depths of their beings.
I am not where I was when Daniel first died. Time, pounding out my anger and sorrow to God and constant support from close friends has helped. I have seen the sun shine again. I have used the tool of writing to bring healing. I have done, what they call “reinvesting in life” (a phrase I do like), and found my niche in volunteering, speaking, publishing, and reaching out to those also on this journey.
Author John Alego says, “Like the growth rings of a tree, our vocabulary bears witness to our past.” Therefore, because I became a griever over six years ago, I cannot sit well with the phrase “the grieving process.”
We are becoming as we adapt to and deal with the many facets of grieving. And I think becoming will take a lifetime.
So move over cheese. Although I enjoy your many varieties, I am not one of them.
The Pinecone Wreath: After a Child Dies
Instructed to collect pinecones
We carried baskets
Deep into the forest where
Through mud puddles
I picked up Sorrow and Despair
Easing over an embankment
I added Fear, Doubt
Soaking feet in a stream
Watching a pair of orange butterflies
I found Awe, Forgiveness and Hope
Under the shadow of the mightiest oak
I struggled with Acceptance of A New Life
The pinecone wreath I strung together
Is lopsided, a mixture of dark and light
But it hangs
It is as real
As I am becoming.