Grieving is universal, yet difficult every time

Published 8:34 am Tuesday, August 17, 2010

David Behling, Notes from Home

David Behling

Along with a few hundred people last Friday at St. Theodore’s, I said goodbye to someone. None of us were expecting to be there. It’s irrelevant to point out that Geri Murtaugh was too young to die, because death has no respect for age, but I point it out anyway. It’s not the first time I’ve said goodbye to someone younger than me, and it won’t be the last.

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The life of every human is marked by losses. Yes, there are births, new relationships, new colleagues, new communities, but there are also people who disappear from our lives before we’re ready. And it’s important to note the pronoun in that sentence. The dying are often ready to go. The living are often less ready to let go.

One important fact about grief that I’ve learned is that it is different for everyone. These differences — our unique ways of experiencing loss — complicate our relationships with the rest of the bereaved in the community. We all share a common affection and respect for someone, but our ways of dealing with their passing can vary quite a bit.

Some people quickly shed the sorrow, dwelling in their memories of the person’s life. They are the ones genuinely “celebrating” the lives of those who have died. Others are in denial of their feelings. It’s not as if they don’t care, but they look uncomfortable, as those around them give vent to their emotions. It may hit them later, or not at all. There are some who look like they’re doing just fine, then snap when the grocery store runs out of their favorite brand of peanut butter or they spill a glass of milk on the floor.

Finally, there are those like me, who smile as we remember the dead, but who also profoundly miss them. It takes us a while to “move on” because death leaves a hole in our lives that cannot be filled by anyone or anything else. Sometimes it even becomes a pain felt in the body, in the gut. It’s a way of keeping them close; as long as that pain exists, that’s how long the loved one remains part of my life.

Differences are part of each individual’s experience, too. When my dad died, I was not in pain, I was relieved, and that made me feel shame and guilt at first. But he’d been trying to die for years, and finally had succeeded. Oh, I cried, when he died — I was old enough to have a more balanced picture of him — but tears lasted only for a little while. Today, I feel no pain when I remember him, not even from memories of the good parts of his life; I’m still relieved to be off the emotional roller coaster of life with him.

When mom died, however, suddenly and unexpectedly, it was like my world came apart. It’s like the Psalmist wrote: food had no flavor and I had no appetite. I got up in the morning, did my chores, but felt nothing but intense sadness and the physical pain of grief. The pain and sadness faded after a few months, but even as I write this, I feel a small point of pain build in my gut. It tells me I still love her, and that she is still part of me.

However, we all grieve, in our unique, individual ways, it’s important to let it happen as it should for us, and not try to pretend or hold things back. Grief suspended or buried or acted out for the benefit of others, for even the best of reasons, can become dangerous. It can change from something natural and healthy to something unnatural and toxic.

For a final word, here’s a cry of grief from Minnesota poet Bill Holm, from the last stanza of his poem “The dead get by with everything”:

Who do the dead think they are!

Up and dying in the middle of the night,

leaving themselves all over the house,

all over my books, all over my face?

How dare they sit in the front seat of my car,

invisible, not wearing their seat belts,

not holding up their end of the conversation,

as I drive down the highway

shaking my fist at the air all the way

to the office where they’re not in.

The dead get by with everything.

Albert Lea resident David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea. His column appears every other Tuesday.