The Symphony of a Life Gone By

It is impossible to freeze a single moment of music — what you get is a chord that means little by itself. It only gains meaning by what went before it and what comes after, by existing as part of a whole.

Ever since the death of my life mate, I’ve been haunted by images of him at various stages of his life — when I first met him, when we were in the fullness of our relationship, and then at the end, when there was nothing left but a body depleted of life. Which of these moments was him? Were any of them him? Or, like music, were each a single meaningless chord in the symphony of his life?

This might seem a foolish reflection, but it is one that echoes now that his life has been silenced. When a person is alive, the person you know is the culmination of a life, with everything — every note and chord of his existence — leading up to that very moment and foreshadowing the song of his future. When the person is gone from this earth, there is no more culmination. The man I knew at the end — the man who had spent his last breath — is gone, burned into a pile of ashes and crushed bone. The man I knew at the beginning, the radiant man with half of his life still ahead of him is also gone, burned by the fires of living and dying. So which is the real person? How do you remember a life — a man — when all you have are bits of the whole?

We were not picture takers, and I have but a single photo of him. Although it looked exactly like him when it was taken fifteen years ago, it doesn’t look at all like him at the end of his life. For months after his death, I refused to look at the photo, afraid that the image of him in my mind would be supplanted by the image of the photo. Recently I decided it doesn’t matter if the image in my head is not of him. No image is “him.” He is gone, his moments forever broken into meaningless chords. I know I cannot hold the whole of him in my mind — it took 63 years of living to play his entire repertoire, parts of which I never heard.

And so, I look at the photo, this single chord of his life, and remember the symphony of a life gone by.

Grief is NOT Self-Indulgent

I was looking at search terms people used to find this blog, and someone googled “I feel self-indulgent when I think of my deceased partner and I cry a lot.” That got my ire going — not about her feeling that way, but at the way our society handles grief. Thinking about one’s partner and crying are not wrong, but there is something seriously wrong with a society that makes the bereft feel self-indulgent for grieving. What the heck is wrong with crying? With grieving? With talking about one’s grief?

Grief is not something to be shoved under the bed like a box of junk that you don’t quite know what to do with. Grief is how we learn to deal with a world suddenly gone crazy, and tears are how we relieve the tension of that grief. I don’t know how long this particular person had been dealing with her grief, but I’m at eighteen months, and though I’ve gone on with my life, I still have upsurges of grief and bouts of crying. Though these bouts have diminished significantly and I recuperate quite quickly, I’m prepared to go the distance, however long it takes. Some people say it takes a minimum of two years to get over the sadness and tears, some say four years, some say one year for every seven years of togetherness, some say never — that even after twenty years they still have times where the truth of their partner’s death hits them and the tears flow.

Since mourning is considered by the uninitiated to be unacceptable behavior after a month or two, most people quickly learn to hide their grief. Grown children especially get irritated at tears, perhaps because they can’t bear to see their once-strong parent brought low or perhaps because they think their parent is being self-indulgent. A friend of mine lost her partner six months ago, and her son berates her for being a drama queen. Such non-acceptance of a natural process adds more agony to an already agonizing time. As I said, there is something seriously wrong with a society that demonizes grief.

After my partner died, I asked the moderator of a grief support group how I should handle questions about my grief. I didn’t want to bore people with my ongoing emotional traumas, but at the same time I didn’t want to pretend everything was fine. I’d also been blogging about my grief but wasn’t sure I wanted to continue since I didn’t want to seem whiny and self-indulgent. She told me it was okay to tell people I was coping if I didn’t want to go into details, but she suggested I continue writing about grief because people needed to know the truth of it. And I’ve followed her advice even though it was hard at times. I mean, after eighteen months, shouldn’t I have gotten over it? The truth is, you never get over a significant loss — you learn to manage living without him or her.

It used to be that women hid their pregnancies, but now they flaunt their “baby bumps.” Maybe it’s time we brought grief out into the open so that the bereft do not feel as if they are self-indulgent for dealing with loss the only way possible — with remembrances and tears.

Grief and Remembrance

The problem with grief is that while the subject of the grief stays gone, grief comes again and again, sometimes when one is least expecting it. I’d been doing well handling my grief after the death of the man with whom I spent thirty-four years of my life, yet these past couple of days grief has come to revisit me, and my sorrow is as great as it was a year ago.

I mentioned before about the terrible anniversaries of my grief. I lived through the first anniversary of the day pain struck him with such force that he took to bed for the rest of his life. I lived through the first anniversary of the day we got the diagnosis: inoperable kidney cancer. I lived through the first anniversary of the day we signed up for hospice, of the day we signed the DNR (the do not resuscitate order).

I had a hiatus of a couple of weeks where I was mostly at peace, then yesterday I was so overcome with grief that I wanted to scream out in anguish. I couldn’t figure out what hit me or why, but as it happens, the body remembers even when the mind doesn’t, and my body remembered that yesterday was the first anniversary of the last time we hugged, the last time we kissed.

And today . . . today is the first anniversary of the last time we talked. The last time he spoke to me. The last time he knew who I was. Today is also the anniversary of the day we took him to the hospice care center to live out the remaining few days of his life.

I’d been looking forward to the anniversary of his death, supposing that after a year of grieving I would be mostly finished with the pain, that he would have receded from my thoughts. It was a realistic expectation — my focus on him has been diminishing, so much so that sometimes it feels as if our life together was a story I told myself long ago — but as always, grief has its own agenda.

The past year seems to have disappeared. I know I lived it, know what I accomplished (and what I didn’t) yet the cliché is true — it passed in the blink of an eye. If I turn my head quickly, perhaps I will see him. He feels that close. If the world could turn back for just a second, I could catch him. Hang on to him. Never let him go.

But he is gone. And all the tears I shed this year will never bring him back.

Today was my grief support group day. I’d stopped going for a while. At the time, I wasn’t in the same place as the other bereft, and I was afraid I was doing them a disservice by my dissociation. After a few weeks, I did go back to be there for a friend, and today she and the group were there for me. Since I hadn’t had a memorial service for my mate, the facilitator asked me to say a eulogy, to make sense of his life, but I couldn’t make sense of it — I don’t understand the point of his having had to suffer so much. I could make sense of his life as pertains to me, though. I talked about how he accompanied and mentored me on my journey — my quest for truth and meaning — how he went with me as far as he could. Oddly, we’d used up our relationship, not in a bad way, but in a good way. We’d talked for hours on end, day after day, year after year. We read books and discussed them, studied films, researched various topics and shared information, tried to see the big picture and connect all the disparate parts of life.

I want so much to talk with him once more, to have one of those electric conversations where ideas were zinging back and forth, but the truth is, we said everything that was important. I have not come up with a single question for him this past year that he had not already answered. (Except for what he wants done with his ashes, but even that is an answer. If he cared, he would have told me.)

The last thing he ever said to me was, “Remember everything I told you.”

And I do remember.