by Alyce Barry –
As many of you know, I’ve been a caregiver for my elderly mother for the past few years. She died on September 2, and I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned about grieving.
When I began writing this essay in October, I found it quite difficult to organize my thoughts. It helped to group my reflections roughly by the four archetypes on which the Shadow Work® model is based, in this order: Lover, Magician, Warrior, and Sovereign.
The difficulty in getting organized helped teach me a few key things about grieving. One, that there is a continual back-and-forth — and by back-and-forth I mean dialogue, or tension, or conflict — between the part of me that’s grieving and the other parts of me. Two, that accomplishing things is a lot more difficult when you’re grieving, including writing this essay. And three, that it’s wise to give yourself permission to accomplish less, a perspective for which I’m grateful to friend Janine Romaner.
THE LOVER: LOSS WITHOUT LOGIC, LOSS IN THE BODY
The part of me suffering most is my Lover — the part of me that connects, and that consequently experiences the disconnect that we call loss. My Lover incorporates also the child part of me, who right now is simply a little girl who has lost her mother.
My little girl doesn’t operate on logic, so there’s a lot of dialogue between my Lover and my Magician when I grieve. My Magician points out that my mother wanted to die for a long time, and that I wanted that for her because I wanted to see her suffering cease, and that therefore her death was really a blessing, and that in addition, she wasn’t a very nice person to be with most of the time. So my Magician is pretty puzzled a lot of the time about all this grieving.
But logic doesn’t matter in the slightest to my little girl. She doesn’t see my mother in the same way that my adult self did. She simply loved her mother and is devastated to have lost her. Perhaps more important, my little girl has lost the hope that her mother would ever change to become the kind of mother she always wanted.
Because she’s a child, this part of me is most aware of her grief in her body, and I’m learning how important it is to listen to her by listening to what’s happening in my body. The most obvious sign of grief is a tightness in my throat, sometimes followed by what feels like a ball of hot water, or a tightness in my face.
Two body positions have been important. In one of them, I lie prostrate over a large sturdy cushion, my chest pressing against the cushion and taking support from its sturdiness. While lying like this, images have come to me of lying against the shoulder of my grandmother, Grandma Barry. It may be that this position echoes my real infancy, when I was comforted by Grandma holding me. There’s no way to know for sure.
In the other position, I am lying on my back with my head thrown back and my mouth wide open, and when I cry in this position the tightness in my throat relaxes, and my crying quickly becomes wailing or keening. I’ve visited a bereavement counselor three times since my mother died. She has encouraged me to remember to keep breathing while crying, and that throwing my head back like this opens the airways so that my body continues to get enough oxygen. She says that most people tighten up while they are crying, and I am reminded of a quote from Hamlet, “our whole kingdom . . . contracted in one brow of woe.” I’ve certainly noticed that when I’m crying I’m generally exhaling, not inhaling.
Because the part of me that grieves is a small child, I’ve learned not to expect the grief to arise only at convenient or predictable times.
PICKING UP TOMBSTONES
One of the best-known Shadow Work® processes is called the Tombstone process, which helps us let go of a destructive pattern that we’re carrying as a way of loving someone we’ve lost.
Since the day my mother died, I’ve been acutely aware of the tombstones that I could be picking up for her. Perhaps because so many of her possessions have been stored in my small apartment, it often seemed as if I was wading knee-deep in unresolved issues of hers that I could pick up and carry in my own life.
The first and most pressing of these was a natural one, I suppose, for a writer. I began writing a lengthy eulogy for her, as if to compete with the eulogy that was being written by her longtime pastor for the memorial service 8 days after her death. For most of those 8 days, I was writing an increasingly long document and intending to finish and photocopy it, and make copies of it available at her memorial service.
My mother was herself a pretty good writer. For many years, she wrote lengthy letters to many family members (including me when I lived at a distance from her), she wrote for or published various newsletters for organizations, and later in life she returned to school to get a degree in journalism. Her writing was often witty, and she even wrote clever gift tags on our Christmas gifts.
During that week after her death, the question began to arise in me, Why was I doing this? Was I trying to outdo her pastor? It increasingly dawned on me that I was trying to be my mother’s voice in the world, as if she had delegated it to me.
To become my mother’s voice in the world would have been, I’m quite certain, to carry a tombstone for her. It would have served none of my own needs — no one I know would have wanted to read it, because it’s in most ways a pretty sad story. It increasingly dawned on me that she’d had a chance to write about her own life at length and had decided not to. I stopped writing and after a few more days felt tremendous relief at laying down the task. It seemed as if I had dodged a bullet.
THE MAGICIAN: THE LONG LIST OF REASONS
As I mentioned earlier, when I grieve there’s a dialogue between my sad little girl and my Magician who is trying to figure out why I’m grieving.
Several people who have heard me talk about Mom in recent years have asked me what I’m grieving for exactly, and I’ve been surprised as I list many more things than I might have expected. I’m coming to the conclusion, as a result, that every grief process is more complex than at first it appears, because every loss is a change to the web of connection we live in. In On Grief and Grieving, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler write, “Loss is so complex and complicated that at times we need to break it down into parts . . .”
What am I grieving for, exactly?
I’m grieving the loss of my mother, and the hope that she would heal and change and become the mother I always wanted. Along with this, I’m grieving the unmet needs of the child I was (for love, support, attention), which have been rising in me like a tide and, at times, sweeping me away into grief for hours.
I’m grieving the way Mom died. One of the most frustrating questions for my Magician has been, Did Mom ever do what we call “letting go”? Last March, she suddenly stopped getting out of bed, saying that she “couldn’t get up any more.” If I had asked her if she was “letting go,” she would have replied, “I have no choice.” She often described herself in a state of “desperation” with her “back to the wall.” Is that still a form of letting go? I don’t know the answer.
At the end, I saw no sign of her resigning herself to death. On the contrary, the last sound she made sounded to my ears like an attempt to communicate fear. I have been grieving about this a lot. I was terribly sad to see my mother die apparently without peace or resolution.
I’m also grieving my ability to communicate with her. One of the special gifts of Shadow Work® is that we can often “step into” the role of someone we love and learn about them, based on our long acquaintance of them on a deep level. I can step into Mom and learn many things about her, such as that she loved me, but I don’t think I can find out the details of her death. I’ll never know about her experience of the details of her final days and hours, and especially whether she was afraid or in pain. I can talk to her, though. I can tell her my own experience of her death and apologize for anything I did wrong, and I plan to do so.
I’m grieving also the loss of taking care of her, of having the daily opportunity to feel and use my compassion for someone who was suffering. It feels good to take care of someone, and to be needed and even important to some degree in that caregiving role. And I’m grieving my daily contact with the staff who cared for her, and regular contact with my siblings, with whom I shared the decision-making about Mom’s care.
Taking care of Mom changed my role among my siblings, and I’m grieving that as well. I was the point person, the person in the know about what was happening, the person who was in charge and calling the shots. Among my siblings are people who are natural leaders, and although I am a leader in several areas in my life, being the leader among my siblings over a prolonged period was a new experience for me.
I’m grieving the loss of my parents’ generation in my family, so that my siblings and I are now the oldest generation. Another way to say that is that I’m grieving my own mortality; Mom’s death has left me acutely aware of the inevitability of my own death. My first inclination was to say that there’s no logical reason for this, since I’m closer to death only because I’m a few months older and not because Mom has died. But on second thought, there is a logical reason here: I have no control over my own mortality, and Mom’s death has brought that into focus. I can’t control my life in order to live forever, and I probably won’t even be able to control the timing of my death.
The bereavement counselor says that every grief is a loss of control. It seemed so obvious once she said it, and yet for me it has been a profound insight. I can control many aspects of my environment, but not my mortality. Neither can I control the mortality of the people I love, and losing one of them is a painful reminder of that.
I’m grieving my mother’s inability to heal. She died feeling a huge load of shame about herself that I was never able to help her with, although I am somewhat expert about shame. This was another kind of loss of control: I couldn’t control Mom’s thinking or behavior, and my efforts to influence it didn’t meet with much success. I wonder if this is what a doctor feels who can’t cure a loved one of a disease.
Finally, I think I’m grieving that human beings have to die at all, and that other human beings witness death. For me it was a shock to witness my mother’s death, and I didn’t even realize it was a shock until several weeks had passed. I had never witnessed the death of a human being before. The moment of death was so undramatic, so unlike death as seen in the movies. It was simply a cessation: one moment she was alive, and the next moment she wasn’t.
At times it has been helpful to be aware of all these reasons. It’s been particularly helpful when it seems as if I’m spending an awful lot of time crying and wonder if it’s too much. At other times the reasons only get in the way.
THE WARRIOR: PROTECTING THE LOVER, FORGOING ACCOMPLISHMENT
I’m self-conscious about crying in public. I worry about what my face looks like, particularly about the way my mouth wrinkles up and I get embarrassed if I can’t talk normally. So when I’m out in the world and the tears well up, I generally go home. In the weeks right after Mom died, every time I exercised at the health club, the tears would well up before I’d finished my workout and I’d bolt for home. If the tears well up when I’m driving, I pull over and sit in the car for a while.
I think of my impulse to bolt for home, or to pull over, as my Warrior trying to protect my grieving little girl.
Sometimes when I’m crying at home, my mouth wants to open wide, my neck wants to arch back, and I want to wail loudly. I get pretty self-conscious about this, so I hug a lightweight pillow to my face. If I think I may be overheard, I turn on some music to provide background noise.
One of the hardest things about this grief process for me has been continuing to accomplish the day-to-day tasks of my life. The bereavement counselor had a useful comment, that when we are grieving we need three kinds of people: people to listen, people to handle tasks that we can’t manage, and people to have fun with in order to forget for a while. In the weeks after Mom’s death, I found I had friends like this, for which I’m grateful.
To the counselor’s list, I would add, people you can grieve deeply with. For me, that means people who are comfortable enough with their own grieving process to be able to accompany me in mine, so that we could hold each other and cry together.
THE SOVEREIGN: GETTING HELP, IT’S OKAY TO TAKE BREAKS
With all the grieving I’m doing, it’s helpful to remind myself that I can take breaks from it. If I decide to focus on getting stuff done for a few days, it doesn’t mean I’m in denial.
You may have noticed, if you’re familiar with Kubler-Ross and Kessler’s work on the five stages of grief, that I haven’t referred to them yet. It was several months before I sought comfort in their books and their expertise and actually felt some shame about that. I didn’t really want to hear what other people said about grief, but rather to express my own through writing this article, and through artwork. I’ve found more comfort than I expected in their stories of other people’s grief.
I’ve seen all five stages in my grieving and have been very surprised at the way they’ve shown up. I didn’t expect to experience denial because it seemed so illogical. But some strange thoughts have gone by about the possibility of reversing her death. If we exhumed her body, we could revive her, couldn’t we? Should we try?
Denial has come in handy, actually. I’ve believed for a long time that denial, despite its negative reputation, is useful, and without which many of us wouldn’t survive childhood. This grieving process is affirming that belief. There are times when I have things to do that I can’t do if I’m lying on my bed crying.
Bargaining, too, struck me as irrational. Yet I’ve found myself thinking, as I look briefly upward, Couldn’t we rewind this? Couldn’t we do this over again, and then I would know she was that close to death and I could act differently?
Getting help isn’t often easy for me, particularly when I’m this vulnerable. I’m grateful that the bereavement counselor has been so understanding and easy to talk to.
Thanks to you, too, for listening.
Alyce Barry is a Certified Shadow Work® Group Facilitator and Coach in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. She is the author of Practically Shameless, available in paperback and on audio CD and as an e-book.
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