A Map of Sorrow

I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop. There is something new to be chronicled every day. (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed) 

Part II of this post is here.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written. This has been a busy year, with a new job and a lot of work to take on. I felt this week, though, that I needed to write this post.

I had a conversation with someone recently that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. This person had a loved one die, and we talked about what it was like to grieve in today’s society. Namely, that it is difficult, because people who grieve are generally expected to move on quickly from their feelings and resume normal activities and attitudes, as though grief were a temporary illness one could recover from in short order.

My own experience with grief has been nothing like that. I am not an outwardly emotional person, but I feel almost a kinship with sadness and grief; these emotions are familiar to me for reasons that don’t always make sense, but they often seem as though they have always been part of my life. I feel a deep grief for relationships or possibilities that might have been, or ones that once were treasured and meaningful, but no longer hold what they once did. I’m almost ashamed to admit this, as it seems pale compared to the grief of those who have lost someone physically. But the loss is there, all the same.

selective focus photo of brown and blue hourglass on stones
Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

One of my favorite authors died this week. For a while after I heard of this, I sat in stunned disbelief at my desk, unable to process the news. She was so young, the age of my friends and I, who are in our mid-30s. Her death was completely unexpected.

What I never feel about grief, at least at first, is sad. It’s the suddenness that gets me, every time. That phantom-limb feeling, that the person is actually still there, surely they’ll call or post online or pop up at the next family gathering. This is all a terrible dream, isn’t it? I just saw them. They can’t be dead.

Then, though I have forgotten the reason, there is spread over everything a vague sense of wrongness, of something amiss. Like in those dreams where nothing terrible occurs—nothing that would sound even remarkable if you told it at breakfast-time—but the atmosphere, the taste, of the whole thing is deadly. So with this.

I see the rowan berries reddening and don’t know for a moment why they, of all things, should be depressing. I hear a clock strike and some quality it always had before has gone out of the sound. What’s wrong with the world to make it so flat, shabby, worn-out looking? Then I remember. (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed)

For a long time, I have grieved the loss of my relationship with my father. He is not dead, but he’s not part of my life and other than a few visits during my childhood, never has been. I used to think that I could not mourn something I never had. But sometimes, in weak moments, I do.

I see other people with their fathers and I wonder what it would have been like to know him. To have him come to my wedding and my graduation and see the milestones in my life that other dads cry over and chronicle on social media, as though they are meaningful events that they would like to remember. I don’t often think of this, because it smacks of self-pity and has little use. But sometimes, I wonder what that would have been like.

I grieve for the death of my favorite author because I think she provided me with something few people have; a sense of truly being understood, and welcomed despite my broken pieces. I am fortunate to have acceptance and love from many members of my family, and that is valuable beyond words. But sometimes, it is hard to feel that anyone, even those who love me, truly understand my darkest places. At the heart of that feeling is the fear that if anyone did understand, they would not like what they see. After all, isn’t that what most of us fear?

This feeling is something I grapple with on a monthly and yearly basis, not something to be gotten over and neatly put away in a drawer, as seems to be expected of people experiencing grief. That’s the thing; there is not a textbook version of how to grieve.

Many people are grieving for someone who is still alive. It may be someone they walk past every day, who is as far away from them as if they were living in another country.

If the person you’re grieving has died, it’s not as if things will be the same again, usually. A person may recover from their most painful sadness and emptiness, but the death of someone deeply loved, or the loss of a truly beloved relationship, is not something to be papered over, sanded down and forgotten.

Each person who means something to us acquires that meaning by changing some piece of us. That piece doesn’t go away because they do.

We’re resilient creatures. We’ll get up again and keep going, because what else can we do? It’s alright to remember that people who truly mean something to us will probably leave a hole in our lives for a long while. Perhaps forever.

We may move on and be happy again. We should be happy again, if we can. Or content, or pursuing something that fulfills us, because happy is a narrow definition of happy. It’s alright to admit that loss has changed us, no matter what kind of loss it is.

To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off it is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’

But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. His whole way of life will be changed.  At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again. (C.S. Lewis) 

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