Thursday, July 30, 2015

Some thoughts on grief and grieving

Song of Solomon 8:6-7 states:  The Shulamite to Her Beloved Set me as a seal upon your heart, As a seal upon your arm; For love is as strong as death, Jealousy as cruel as the grave; Its flames are flames of fire, A most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, Nor can the floods drown it. If a man would give for love All the wealth of his house, It would be utterly despised.

Perhaps S of S is only about sexual love (not romantic, because that wasn't "invented" until the Middle Ages).  It certainly gets provocative.  But this passage seems to me to also be about grief.  Love goes on after death; is that not the definition of grief?  We do not just "miss" a person from our daily routine, because we love and grieve for people who violate our daily routines and convenience, who do not make our lives "easy."  To put it on the level of "missing" is to say it's like a TV show that was cancelled or a team that moved out of town.

Yesterday was the anniversary of my mother's death, and I am taking some time off this week for reflection and writing and resting before the flurry of the new academic year.  I start, in a sense, the next phase of my life, since a year is all we need to grieve, right?  One year of magical thinking is enough, right?  (which is a great book by Joan Didion, despite her silence on spiritual issues).    I am being sarcastic because I read up on the five stages of grief yesterday.  

Those seems like a cliche now, something for people to use who are so embedded in the 21st century and its technologically connected isolation that they have lost track of the human experience of several centuries of Western civilization, which is grounded in the seasons of the Northern hemisphere and the mindset of Judeo-Christianism.   As such, I believe we have lost track of what real emotion feels like, that love is as strong as death and death is very strong.  We "move on."  To what?

I asked myself yesterday if I had gone through the five stages of grief and then asked myself why did it matter?  Why would I even need to ask myself that question, since I am not sure I buy the framework?  I am not Moses bargaining over the Israelites or Abraham bargaining over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  I am not in  a place, theologically, to bargain with God.  Was I angry my mother suffered?  Of course.  Suffering is so endemic we don't even know when we are.  It's like preachers saying American would be judged in the future; we don't know that we are already being judged.  I am perpetually angry about suffering.  I do not understand it, no matter how many C.S. Lewish quotes I read about whispers and trumpets.  Did I accept her death?  Yes, rather quickly.  I was there.  I lifted her lifeless hand.  It was a fact.  Was I depressed?  Of course.  Still am.  I still find myself staring at the walls and not wanting to get out of bed.  Did these happen in cycles?  Yes and no.  Sometimes in the same day.  I had so much to do to deal with her estate, most of it got postponed and that's probably why I am dealing with it now.

The emotions were more about the hospice and care experience than the actual death.  That is another topic:  caregiver guilt.  That has almost been a matter of spiritual warfare.

The framework has helped people but it is a temporary shelter rather than a strong building with an enduring foundation.  It helps people who are "surprised by grief," who find themselves experiencing feelings after a loved one's death that they didn't expect--but why?  Such a surprise is something people 100 years ago would have been mystified by.  They had better rituals.  They didn't cremate; there was a place--a grave with a headstone--to remember.  They took a year. They wore black for a reason rather than it made them look thinner.  

I remember a student in the '90s I had whose husband died suddenly.   She came to me about missing classes; she said people in her family were telling her to get over it and move on three weeks later.  At the same institution I had a student who broke down because she had had an abortion and was being told the same thing by the parents who had pressured her to get the abortion.  Such cruelty is unfathomable to me.  

Love is as strong as death.  Many waters cannot quench love. 

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