I recently finished participating in a grief support group, composed mostly of people who, like me, had lost a spouse. I remember the chaplain sharing a story at our very first meeting. He told us of an older widower from a previous group who, at the first opportunity to ask questions, raised his hand and asked in a no-nonsense manner, “How long is this going to take?” The chaplain, not catching his meaning right away, responded very matter of factly, “The group runs for about seven weeks.” “No”, the gentleman clarified, “how long until I start getting over this…the pain?” Instead of offering him some platitude about how time heals all wounds, etc., the chaplain asked him a question of his own. “How long did it take to get over the birth of your first child?” The man answered that he never got over that event. The chaplain replied with an air of sincere wonder, “Why do you think it’s any different – getting over the loss of your wife?” The story ended there, but I imagine it gave the pain-stricken man pause to reflect, as it did me.
Like the man in that group, I too entered this process with an eye toward getting over the pain. I viewed grief as something to be outlasted, as if I could just grit my teeth, hunker down, and wait it out until someone popped the lid off the crucible. Six months? A year? Two years? How long until I can say “I’ve made it!” Not so, friends, not so.
Which leads to my final group meeting, where the chaplain is sitting back after a woman just finished unburdening herself of something truly painful. He was struck by what she said, responding only to say, “Going through grief is like a dance, isn’t it?” I’m not sure what the others thought of that comparison, but it certainly stayed with me. In fact, both his question to the widower, and his analogy at the end became so closely related in my mind. One doesn’t get over the loss of a loved one. One shouldn’t. For me, life will never again return to “normal”, as if that ever really existed in the first place. Rather, I’m finding that I must go through a process of integrating this loss into my daily life – for the rest of my life. I’m told the pain will lessen, but this dance has no time limit. Just like the emotional undertow I wrote of earlier, grief can show up at any time, tapping you on the shoulder for a dance. Do you engage? Or, do you pretend not to notice – choosing to brush her aside and remain a wallflower? As uncomfortable as it can be, I choose to engage. I say that only because I’ve experienced firsthand the result of not engaging. It turns you toxic inwardly, outwardly, or both. That, and I know that should I live long enough, I’m sure to experience loss again with others that are in my life. Whether faced with my own mortality or that of a loved one, I don’t want to be caught dreamy-eyed and unprepared, not knowing the most basic of steps. So for now, I’ll choose to take the time to remember…and to feel. I’ll choose to bring Alicia up in conversation with others, even if it causes me tinges of sadness. I’ll listen with intent when one of our sons needs me to help them process. I’ll work through the awkwardness of sitting in a counseling room, wondering what on earth I’m supposed to say. I’ll identify myself with others who are getting tapped on the shoulder, hoping I can in some small way act as a beacon to them. Friends, the next time grief comes my way, I want to fix her with a clear-eyed gaze, extending my hand to meet hers, my other hand firmly placed on the small of her back, ready to move around the floor at the first note.
Featured Image: The Singing Butler by Jack Vettriano