“I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
The first time I wrote about grief — my grief — was in college, several years after my mother’s passing. I still catch myself pausing at what word to use. Passing. Not death. Passing. Verbal window dressing, a word with a softer landing than death. It is a more comforting word than death, isn’t it though? A verb that denotes movement and travel, of going somewhere beyond. So the thought of a loved one’s passing, of their journey continuing on in another plane of existence is far more comforting than the thought of them simply ceasing to exist. So I look at the word death and I look at the word passing, and I choose passing. Every time.
I dread this week every year. And whether I try to ignore it or reluctantly face it head on, it comes every year just the same. It feels like a tragedy happening in slow motion that I can’t stop and can’t escape: I know the outcome, I’ve watched this scene before, but I can’t stop it from playing. So I wait and watch it approach.
This week will be 29 years since she died. How is that possible? Time heals all wounds, they say. But time doesn’t feel relevant when it comes to grief. It’s an empty promise that time will act as a buffer, giving us distance and respite from the pain of our loss. It doesn’t account for the power of memory, a tool so powerful that when our mind replays a memory, it cannot distinguish the difference between the memory and the event itself. So it’s no wonder the hold that grief can have on us, the immediacy with which it can come rushing back. It was 29 years ago, and it was yesterday.
Grief is a kind of time travel, immersing our emotions into the now of the past, the feelings just as raw, the wound just as deep. The past becomes present. We stretch out our hand and say not yet. And yet the grief still comes. It is unrelenting.
I was 14 when my mother died. A hard age, people still say to me. Now living this far on the other side of it, I think any age is a hard age to lose a mother because we will always need them. There will always be moments when we instinctively reach for them, no matter how old we are.
People talk of ghosts and angels and of experiences with loved ones from the beyond. My own father, already a man of few words whose vast silence encapsulated his grief and nearly swallowed him whole, spoke of a few experiences where he felt his beloved nearby. Were those experiences real? Were they just wish fulfillment? Does it matter as long as they felt real to him? Regardless, they made me think it was possible, somehow. So I wished and I waited. In those first 10 years without her, I met several people who shared experiences with me that they could see her; see her near me, in front of me, next to me. All unprovoked, all telling me my mother was near, that they could see her. But I couldn’t see her. I still haven’t seen her. Why did they get to see her and I didn’t? I still ask myself that question. Was I too close to be able to see her? Farsighted by focusing too far into a future without her? Would my grief swallow me whole if I got too close? Is my grief not a conduit but a barrier?
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
(T.S. Eliot; The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)
There has only been one time when I distinctly felt my mother near. At the time, my grief felt particularly insurmountable, my isolation inescapable. I felt her in the room. A thought in my head that felt like her voice came to me. It felt like she was saying to me that if I wanted to see her, I would see her. My fear equaling my desire, I said not yet. And then I felt her leave.
“The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just that time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
I have seen my mother in my dreams. The most significant one was in 2013, the night before the anniversary of her death. I was in a waiting room of sorts. Waiting, waiting. Suddenly my mother was there. She quickly hugged me before going somewhere else, the destination only known to her. She didn’t speak. She almost never speaks in my dreams, her Finnish lilt still alive only in my memories. There we were, in this waiting room between worlds; only who’s waiting for whom?