Good grief

Yesterday while I was mowing the lawn and listening to one of the more melancholy songs in the Townes Van Zandt oeuvre, it hit me: today was going to be one of those inevitable days of suck.

I hadn’t had one in a while. In the (nearly) three years since Mom died, the anniversary and birthday and the holidays had gone round and come round, had begun to regenerate with their own rituals. But as fate would have it, I was out of the country for Mother’s Day in 2012 and 2013. Despite encountering bits and pieces of the run-up (which seems to start around St. Patrick’s Day) I had not experienced the actual mental checklist of the day and the concomitant graying of each box with grief. No present, no card, no call, no Mom.

In our prosperous society where we rarely encounter death, we tend to think of grief as a process with an end, a gauntlet that must be overcome. But even from the day of Mom’s death, I think that I began to understand the set of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual responses I group as “grief” as an ally. When I talk to friends who have had to encounter death, I pass on advice that was given to me: trust yourself, trust your body. Because there is something in us that is ready to reckon with death’s disruption to the natural order, if only we are ready to listen to it. When the death is as sudden or confusing as my mom’s or my brother-in-law’s, grief gradually goes from a shocking new dimension of experience to a familiar facet of the self, a way of processing the world that is comprehensible, even comfortable.

One of my last experiences with my mom was visiting her on the night her father, my Grandpa Cork, passed away. Cork was a daily mass-goer, whereas Mom had become a Presbyterian and then a Jew and then ended her life as a woman still trying to figure out her own Higher Power. But when Cork died she wanted to pray in a church. I happened to know that the Church of the Ascension had a chapel with a Perpetual Adoration, where the Host is attended at all times. So we went there. Mom kneeled and crossed herself and prayed and I have no idea what she said, but I thought about the Church’s teachings about the Mother of God, and how contemplating the prayers of another can only add to our own. That shared experience of grief was one of her great gifts to me, though I don’t think she ever knew it. Maybe she does now.

Today nearly all those close to me know these poses of grieving alone and grieving together, going back and forth between the two with understanding. This shared communion is one of the reasons why it is easy to transfer the spirit of Mother’s Day to others while still keeping faith with my own. I don’t know how any of this would be possible without the recognition that the response of grief exists within each of us, even if we cannot perfectly understand one another’s. Grief can be good. My sister has started an organization that even contends it can change the world. I share her hope that sometimes it can, and that sometimes it just helps us get through the day, and in between it gives us the wisdom to know the difference.