Gone, I say and walk from the church,
refusing the stuff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June. I am tired of being brave.Anne Sexton, The Truth The Dead Know
Anticipatory grief is the term used to describe exactly what it sounds like: anticipating grief. Expecting the worst, and going through the grieving process before the event arrives. It’s weird, and annoying for those around you, but it’s real. It’s a part of my life, and has been since 2003.
Six months before my daughter died in June 2003, the idea of reading CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed became obsessive. I knew nothing about it, other than I’d run across the name a few times before. Mila was 2. She’d had two heart surgeries. Her heart was a labyrinth. When the doctors breathlessly chart the undiscovered country of your 6 month old’s heart with an echocardiogram, you know your life is about to change dramatically.
She looked like me. So much like me. She scrunched her nose when she talked. She liked to dance. She liked to beat up kids who were mean to other kids. She was hilarious. But her heart. It wasn’t ever going to work right, and I knew, deep down inside, that we were looking at least one transplant. At least.
But hope and stuff. It’s a bitch.
So I was inexplicably drawn to this book, and I read it in one night. It’s CS Lewis’s account of the emotional aftermath of his wife’s death. The wife he met, married, and lost within a few years. His anger and his sorrow are almost unbearable. But I knew somehow, like I always know when I’m about to lose something so full of potential, that I’d need this particular knowledge to find my way. Not my way back, because there’s no way back. Just through.
After the first death, there is no other.Dylan Thomas, A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.
And I lost her.
At some point, our lives become a collection of losses. And if we aren’t careful, we lose ourselves along the way. Hope becomes illusory. And then it becomes impossible to imagine anything good ever happening again.
I was barely in my 20’s, and I’d lost my heart. What else could I lose?
I’ve learned not to ask that question, because there’s always more to lose. I’ve learned you can lose your heart more than once, because we give different parts of ourselves to each person we love. Love eventually destroys us, and though we’ve lost another piece, we’ve still got more to lose.
I’ve learned not to read poetry aloud. I’ve learned not to ignore the premonitions of loss. I’m not very superstitious, but there are things I cannot explain. The signals that enter my subconscious to trigger anticipatory grief is one of them. I’ve learned that grief is never the same animal twice. And “anniversaries” are everywhere. It’s not just The Day She Died, it’s The Day We Went To That Exact Zoo Exhibit. The Day She Had A Great Cardiologist’s Visit. The Day She Had Her Seizure. The Day My Life Changed.
The Day She Was Born.
The day I found her was the 7th of September. The day I lost her was the 6th of June. Each day without her has been a study in being flayed alive in slow motion. So now I have no skin, and I am a collection of nerve endings and I am expected to walk around the party being nice to everyone, when all I really want to do is disappear. Not literally, but figuratively. I don’t want to feel a fucking thing again. I want to stop losing things so I can breathe.
But the things I lose were never mine to begin with, because life is loss. It is not fair. It does not make sense. When I was about 6 months out from her death, I remember thinking each day that passes is a day farther from the last time I held her. I try to tell myself that it also could be looked at as a day closer to the day I hold her again, but I’ve had limited success with optimism. Because as much as I want to believe those we love come back to us, I’m not so sure they do. We have to staunch the bleeding and keep moving forward.
In my beginning is my end.TS Eliot, East Coker
A friend of mine tells me that I should learn to live in the moment. I don’t know how to do that. Everything is just loss waiting to happen. There’s no happy ending, they’re going to leave you, the results come back positive. It’s harder to live pretending that it isn’t all going to fall apart, leaving you in shock. Helpless.
And then there are those well-meaning folk who lean in, hold your hand and say with the deepest sincerity, “At least you have your memories of her.” What good does memory do me? It only casts into stark relief what I do not have. What I cannot have. The face I cannot touch. The person I can no longer hold. The place I can no longer visit. Choosing to live with memory is choosing to be haunted. Living with ghosts. My life is full of them, and I don’t think I can handle many more.
Eventually, the bleeding will stop. One way or another. Should we also learn to stop opening our veins for others? Losing a child, that’s not something you can protect yourself from. But letting people in, letting them see you — that’s something you can control. Hoping for, well, anything, is foolish. All is impermanent, void, empty of meaning.
As much as I would love to end with an uplifting, inspirational anecdote of finding God in the depths of despair, I cannot. I’m here, though, and I am not bereft of hope, although I have come to the point where I have begun to hate that naive little idiot. I can end with Eliot, instead.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith.TS Eliot, East Coker.