Holbrook: Musings on grief (column)
“Then comes a sudden jab of red-hot memory and all this common sense vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace” — C.S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed.”
In the checkout line at Safeway last week, I noticed a copy of Time Magazine, with a cover story titled “Let’s Talk About Grief.” There is an interview with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who lost her husband several years ago, with the tag line “Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.”
I stared at the magazine for a moment, and felt the heavy black boot of grief kick me in the chest.
In 2013, my marathon-running, yoga-practicing, ever-youthful father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Three harrowing weeks later he was dead. Four years after his death, it is fair to say that for me — and for my mom, my brother and sister — life can be divided into the time before my father died, and the time that has come after.
Before my father died, my brother and sister and I had the usual worries and concerns of life: there were financial ups and downs, divorces followed by new relationships, career drama. But all of this took place within the seemingly secure reality of who we were — and would always be — as a family. Dad would always be there to resolve arguments diplomatically and to look on the bright side; Mom would always suggest a brisk walk.
Each of us siblings had our own exaggerated but comforting family identity: My brother was the creative technology genius, my sister the hothead and devoted mom; I was the business woman and the adventurer. In good times and not so good times, all of us knew there was that shared place called home where we could reconnect with the stories of who we were as individuals and as a family.
The suddenness of my father’s illness, the confusion and chaos of his medical treatment, and the shock of his death left all of us overwhelmed and with a deep sense of pain and grief.
In the time that came after his death, my mother sold the house we grew up in and moved to Florida to be closer to my siblings. Each of us became more focused on our own lives. And without my dad, the diplomat, we all tended to retreat into our personal interests and quarrels with no one to intercede. I have tried to wrap my head around what is so obvious but at the same time almost impossible to comprehend: that the future does not go on boundlessly and forever, that on a day that will likely not be of your choosing, there will be no more second chances. And I have nursed my grief.
I miss my father. In unexpected moments, like standing in line at the supermarket, that tidal wave of loss can overwhelm me.
I found I resented the title of the Time Magazine article, which I kept thinking about as the days went by. In part, I thought, cynically, “How typical, another famous, Type-A personality coming up with a happy checklist of how to turn adversity into a personal self-improvement program.”
And the more I brooded over it, the more it became clear to me that I did not want to find resilience and joy, thank you very much. I would like to have my father back. And failing that, my grief was the most powerful connection to him that I had left.
A couple of days ago it was my birthday.
In a surprising shift from the week before, I woke up with an incredible lightness of heart, and with the instantaneous thought: “Wow! I am 56 years old today and I am still alive!” Despite everything, despite all my resistance, a profound sense of gratitude rushed in. At this age, I know that not everyone makes it this far.
I thought about my father. While he chose an orderly, responsible life as a lawyer, husband and father, he came from a long line of unconventional characters and risk takers — from Francis Cooke who came to the unknown wilderness of America on the Mayflower, to my father’s grandfather who took off down the Amazon with a camera crew in 1913 on a flimsy wooden raft. Dad’s aunt Kitty boarded a steamer to Australia and married a sheep rancher. His “Grandma Morgan,” whose portrait as a young debutante I received when my father died, left a New York Society marriage (the scandalous details of the divorce were published in the tabloids) to run off with John Morgan, descendent of the infamous pirate.
While my mother’s family often fretted about my “prospects,” my father always made me feel that there was boldness and a sense of adventure in the (not always prudent) choices I have made. His assessment gave me — and still does give me — confidence in difficult times, and a sense of my own strengths and abilities.
Grief is not something I am fully willing to relinquish. I am sad that my father did not live to see what a happy turn my life has taken in these past few years since I moved to Colorado. But at the same time, having made it yet another spin around the sun, I feel there is reason enough — for who my father was and for all that he gave me — to give gratitude a bigger space in my heart than grief.
In the end I did listen to an interview with Sheryl Sandberg and found her reflections on grief and the potential for resilience meaningful. The journey through death and loss is a journey that connects us all.
Christina Holbrook lives in Breckenridge.
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