Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Dark Side of Grief

The Dark Side of Grief 

(c)  By Joanne Cacciatore, PhD, MSW, FT
All Rights Reserved

It has been 13 years, three months, ten days and eight hours since my precious baby girl died. Several months after she died, I read C.S. Lewis' A Grief Observed. For the first time in 13 years, I picked the book up again last night, and I read it.

I don't know what it was about Lewis' words that seized me, but within fifteen minutes, this frail, seemingly harmless paperback had crashed down upon me, mercilessly transporting me back in a time to the house of early grief. Lewis, a spiritual man, spoke honestly of his struggles in this memoir, challenging everything he knew to be true about spirituality, mourning, and love:

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But do not talk to me of the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you do not understand (p. 25).

I look up at the night sky. Is anything more certain than that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. She is dead (p. 15).

The act of living is different all through. 
Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything (p. 11).

I almost prefer the moments of agony. They are at least clean and honest (p. 4).

If a mother is mourning, not for what she has lost, but for what her dead child has lost, it is a comfort to believe that the child has not lost the end for which it was created. And it may be a comfort to believe that she herself, in losing her only natural happiness, has not lost a greater thing, that she may still hope to 'glorify God and enjoy Him forever.' [It may be] a comfort to the God-aimed, eternal spirit within her. But not to her motherhood. The maternal happiness must be written off. Never, in any place or time, will she have her son on her knee, or bathe him, or tell him a story, or plan for his future, or see her grandchild (p. 27).

As I read these words, grief seared through the days and years that had distanced me from the raw emotions so familiar in the early days. I was catapulted backward, into the abyss from which I had emerged years earlier, scratching and clawing my way into my new world. 

I began to re-experience the profound trauma of that cruel July day in 1994. It felt, once again, so much like hopeless insanity, thoughts looped endlessly in my mind and every cell in my body aching for my now-13-year-old little girl. I was surprised by the intensity of the emotions. They felt primal and irrational, yet they were all too familiar remnants of the past. I was alone and lonely in the most terrifying place I'd ever known.

This was the dark side of my grief. I thought I'd put it away, wrapped judiciously in paper and tucked neatly into a box, on a shelf, in the closet. I thought I'd wrapped it in an impermeable bow. The dark side of grief would remain there for the rest of my life, for I would focus on the light of grief, hope and the beauty from pain, the gifts of my beloved child.

Yet, here I was, more than a decade-long chasm between the 'me back then' and the 'me now'. The dark side of grief revisited, an assurance that it was never too far, lurking just around the corner. I felt desperate to stop the emotions. I feared, despite all I knew and had learned, that I was going to a place from which I might never be able to return. I could not stop sobbing; for hours, I cried, until I had no more tears left to shed. I went to sleep exhausted, my eyes swollen, heart aching, and mind pining.

There are so many dimensions- crevices and precipices- in the grief experience that I feel myself still bewildered by its mysteries. Last night was excruciating, yet necessary, for me. I reconnected to that unspeakable pain from which I had safely distanced myself. I questioned, again, the concept of a good and loving Creator, or as Lewis questioned, a 'sadistic and vivisecting' God. I stood on the inside looking out into a world in which I do exist; yet, from which I feel so detached. And I understood my grief, at this moment in time and space, in a different way.

In a sense, I realized that to know my daughter more wholly- to love, remember, and honor her life- I had to eventually allow space between myself and the debilitating grief that paralyzed me in the early months and years. The insidious grief that rendered me breathless, speechless, and motionless. I realized that I could not see life clearly if my eyes were constantly filled with blinding tears. My mind could not reach clarity if muddled by the incessant sensory loop of events on the day she died. Her life could not have meaning and purpose if my life was devoted only to the dark side of grief.

So, I continue to live with grief as my constant companion, and I will occasionally approach, perhaps even welcome, the dark side of grief when it visits. The fears that it will overtake me, steal me from the new life I've learned to love, seem unfounded. I think that it, too, is my friend, teaching me new ways to see the magnitude of my own grief and the grief of others, and keeping the wounded mother of 2007 connected to the wounded mother of 1994. In the words of Lewis, "Sorrow, however, turns to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history…something new to be chronicled every day."

All of my grief, the painful, bitter side and the beautiful side that brings with it gifts and teachings, have value in my life. While I'd rather sit on a warm, summer day with the latter, there are evenings when my mind is quiet and the dark side will come to sit with me. I will accept its visits knowing I will smile at its departure in the morning that follows. 

And I, like Lewis, hope that she- wherever she is now- is smiling too. 
Poi si torno all' eternal fontana.

This was originally published in the MISS Foundation's newsletter

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The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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