Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Afternoon of Mourning

Every Devil - Tanya Donelly (mp3)
Wish You Well - Katie Herzig (mp3)

It’s 6:10 a.m. I’m in the kitchen with my mother. I’m 6 years old. I’m eating one of the Monster Cereals for breakfast. Probably Count Chocula. Mom is pouring another cup of coffee before we head to the car for another day of school. Then, in the midst of the mildly frantic hubbub, she stops. The world stops with her. She’s staring into the blackness of the window, swept into a different dimension far away from me, from the kitchen, from that present moment.

She’s thinking about my biological father. Her brain has called up some memory -- a passionate kiss, or an intense fight, or some random moment where their fingers grazed one another as they reached for the salt shaker at the same time, whatever -- and she has fallen into that well of grief where her mind still struggles to accept that he’s dead.

This is fiction. I made it up.

I don’t have a specific memory of a specific morning from a specific childhood age. What I do have is a jumble of memories of seeing my mother stare off into the distance, yanked out of body and out of that moment, spaced out and incapable of communicating. And I have the wisdom and experience of age now, enough to realize she was mourning her dead husband, enough to realize she almost never let me in on this secret for fear of it having some undesirable consequence on my own childhood.

As I continue my all-too-rapid approach to midlife, I’ve learned it’s not just my mom who has these lost spells. We all do at some point. Once we’ve encountered a tragedy or event too powerful for us to simply swallow and process, our minds will occasionally pull us away from reality and force us to continue digesting the meaning and consequence of a lost loved one, or a divorce, or a tornado ripping our house to shreds, or a serious car accident.

If I learned one seriously painful and life-altering lesson from the death of my adopted father, it’s that we place far too much cultural emphasis on “being there” for someone immediately following a tragedy, and far too little on being there later. When we’re in shock and reeling from a life-altering event, we find our head buzzing, our bodies in a sort of vertigo, and we’re surrounded by concerned people and covered dishes. But later, when the shock has worn off, and the mundane repetitive nature of our lives has been fully restored, and that grief yanks us away from our daily existence for a minute or a day or a week, we feel alone and forgotten. No covered dish. No concerned visitors. No sympathy cards.

Because we’re supposed to be better. We’re supposed to have healed. We had our time to mourn, and now it’s way past time to have moved on.

There might be no lonelier and more heartbreaking thing to say, to oneself or someone else, than “It’s time to move on.” If you don’t believe me, go rewatch Ghost.

The tornado that tore through our Southeast and the outpouring of concern and care that has overflowed in its wake has been truly amazing, but it’s also important to remember that rebuilding for most victims of such an event doesn’t happen overnight. It takes weeks, months, even years. It’s true of tornadoes, and it’s true of tragedy in general.

My point is this. Think of someone you know -- anyone, really -- who has lost a loved one. Be it the death of a parent from old age or cancer, or a sibling, or a child. It can even be someone who went through a rough divorce. Think of that person in your head.

Now, right now, no matter how long ago that tragic moment occurred, think about writing them a letter, by hand, telling them that they’re on your mind. (You can add in a little religious seasoning to taste if you lean that way, but it’s not necessary.)

Tell them they are on your mind and your heart. Tell them you know, from your own experiences, that we might not ever fully heal from the tragedies we survive, but maybe that’s not always a bad thing. Tell them that you admire them for how very well they’ve seemed to manage, and even though there’s probably nothing you can do, you’re thinking of them and there if they need anything.

Yes, it’s possible your note will make that person cry. It’s possible you’ll be picking an emotional scab that was better left all crusty, and if that’s the case, I apologize to the both of you. But I can tell you by name the two people who have reached out to me at completely unexpected and random times, and I can tell you I remember their act of concern and kindness a bajillion times more intensely than I remember those covered dishes and those hugs of sympathy at the visitation.

It never hurts to know someone is thinking of you.


Ben said...

This is wonderfully written and incredibly true. Great stuff.

Daisy said...

My letters are in the mail!

Anonymous said...

Billy (and Bob), thanks for not posting anything new today. I've been giving this beautiful post a lot of thought and I'm glad for the opportunity to ponder it for another day before moving on to your next intriguing topic. Cheers.