By Margie Nichols, Ph.D.
I watched the amazing movie “Rabbit Hole” for the second time last night and was once again struck by how catastrophic grief changes (or doesn’t) over time. And yesterday I read, for the first time in years, the opening pages of blog I kept on Livejournal.com called ‘My Child’s Death.’ I started that blog just 18 days after my beloved daughter, Jesse, died, and the raw pain jumped out at me yesterday, causing me to reflect on the morphing of my own grief.
Like many people, I remember meaningful quotes – lines from literature, poetry, song lyrics- words that capture my mood or a particular frame of mind. My car is covered in bumper stickers, and you can trace my bereavement journey with the little notes and papers stuck to my refrigerator. In my first few blog pages I found “And the worst part is knowing I’ll survive”( Emmylou Harris) and “Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone”(John Mellencamp). Posted on my refrigerator from those early days (moved from the front to a side corner, but still there): the mournful “Love knows not its own depths until the hour of separation” (Kahlil Gibran) and the Langston Hughes poem that begins “I loved my friend/ She went away from me/There’s nothing more to say….”
And of course the darkest of my dark quotes remains, lodged with a magnet in the early days of grief, words penned by Ernest Hemingway: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
Thankfully, that degree of nihilistic suffering faded to a manageable level after a couple of years. When it still hits, it strikes like a two by four against the skull, but that doesn’t happen often. At some point light broke through my darkness: the quote that occupied front and center on my frig for a while was “We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.” (Kenji Miyazawa). “Love is not too high a price to pay for pain” (anon) mixed some positive with the pain. Over the years, with the help of my family and friends, especially my children, my therapist, meditation and yoga teachers, and the blessing of my work, I have constructed a new life. It still feels to me like my life as I knew it ended June 2, 2004. But my life now is rich and meaningful, and even frequently light and joyful, something I never expected in the first few years.
My grief is quieter now, softened. My favorite quote, and it has been for some time is “You are the one still in my every breath” (Paul Valery). Since ‘following the breath’ has been one of my mindfulness practices for decades, they are particularly apt and comforting words.
But the best description of what has happened to me is summed up by Diane Weist, telling her daughter that over time, something about grief changes:
The weight of it, I guess. At some point it becomes bearable. It turns into something you can crawl out from under, and carry around – like a brick in your pocket. And you forget it every once in a while, but then you reach in for whatever reason and there it is: “Oh right. That.” Which can be awful. But not all the time. Sometimes it’s kinda… Not that you like it exactly, but it’s what you have instead of your son, so you don’t wanna let go of it either. So you carry it around. And it doesn’t go away, which is…
Jesse, dearest, you are the air that I breathe, the earth I walk on. And the pain of losing you is a burden I will gladly carry forever.