Saturday, October 8, 2005

What it means to grieve, from those who know

It was C.J. Lewis who said the reason we read is to know we are not alone.

 In shared story is connection, in connection is comfort. So perhaps the best things I can do today is share the reading I’ve been doing lately, in order to let the writers know the courageous company they keep.

 What a moving avalanche of response arrived over the last two weeks from Toronto Star readers to a column two Saturdays ago on the cavalier notion that there is a quick and easy 'closure' when it comes to grieving a loved one’s death. If it is sad, reading the mail, to know there is so much tragedy and pain in our small patch of the planet, it is inspiring to realize how much courage and quiet dignity are mustered in its face.

 What reader after reader said, in email and letters, often relating the circumstances of the own losses of children or mates some reflecting the anguished rawness of recency, others the yearning ache of long, long years "is that when it comes to 'closure', there is no such thing.

 As the American writer Joan Didion observed recently in The New York Times Magazine, in an essay on the loss last year of her husband John Gregory Dunne, "grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it." It is obliterative, she said, dislocating to both mind and body.  And there is no timetable for its passing.

 Gerri Jablonowski wrote from the Peterborough area that her 19-year-old son Frank, an officer cadet at Royal Roads Military College in Victoria, B.C., had been killed along with three friends in a 1998 plane crash.

"Nothing can ever take the pain away and time does not heal a broken heart... Life is never the same and it tears the soul to pieces. It took me many years to find some kind of ‘normalcy’ a very different normal."

 For Jablonowski, this has involved working with the Bereaved Families of Ontario. And the wish to help others hit by similar tragedy was a common theme of the stories told by readers.

 Heather Thompson of Brancroft lost her two sons in a car accident in July 1988. "The spirit of my two sons is always with me," she said. "Always." When a friend of hers lost his wife and child in a car accident just months ago, "I could actually feel his pain on hearing the news," she said. "And I was blindsided by the resurfacing of my own grief."

 In a letter to her friend, Thompson offered the benefit of her experience and whatever help she could for as long as it takes.  Because "the people will all go home, and the sandwiches will all be eaten and you will be left to find your way," she said.  "Grief has an agenda of its own."

 Diane van der Pol, a Markham mother who lost a child, said "closure" is the word used "to sell a house, to finalize an agreement, a contract or a business deal."

 Particularly in the case of parents who have lost a child, grief does not go away, she said. It is a constant, scalding the heart again at every anniversary or birthday or celebration at which there is an absence that can never be filled.

 "Perhaps we are better able to cope over time," she said. "But you never ‘get over’ your loss. We live with so many broken dreams."

 In 1981, Elizabeth Spitzer lost her daughter Lisa, who was three months shy of her 16th birthday. "Closure? It never happens, she wrote. "It is there for a lifetime."

 An ordained minister who is also a bereaved parent said she was appalled "by the idea so prevalent in our contemporary culture that grief is something akin to a headache, i.e. take two Aspirins and you’ll feel better in the morning."

 A woman who recently lost her husband said she was weary of pat comforts that suggest she should be able to promptly get on with things. If only it were that simple ... Life would be beautiful and death would hold no pain."

 A man who lost his daughter last year said "there is no closure - only a wound that you attempt to live with."

 Al Dunn wrote from St. Catharines to say he had lost his wife Barbara a month ago. She had a long battle with multiple sclerosis and for the last 12 years, in retirement, he had been her caregiver.

 "I would gladly have continued my role for years if I could have kept her with me," he said. "How deep is my hurt and my loss for someone who has been part of my life for more than 50 years, since we first met in high school? How does one ‘close’ that?

"Not soon. Not easily. And probably never..." Thank you all for writing, and for your hard-won wisdom.

Jim Coyle usually appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.