Reflections on the Permanence of Parental Grief

I’m Still Grieving After Three Years.

In his remarkable book on parental grief, The Spiritual Lives of Bereaved Parents, Dennis Klass writes, “Parental grief is a permanent condition.”

This sentence resonated with me when I first read the book a few weeks after I lost my 15-year-old daughter to cancer. It resonated even more when I read it over two years later. By then, the permanence of my grief had begun to sink in.

Klass’s book discusses grief over time. He goes far beyond early grief — what I think of as the first twelve months after loss. He states, up front, that parental grief is the worst pain imaginable. He reinforces, albeit gently, that for parents, grief never goes away.

Since then, I’ve read many books about grief — from Joan Didion’s, The Year of Magical Thinking to C.S. Lewis’s, A Grief Observed. While I’ve found these books to be insightful, they are primarily focused on how the authors navigated their worlds within the first year of their loss (in both cases, the authors lost their beloved spouses).

These books helped me tremendously when I was a newly bereaved mother, but they didn’t shed light on what happens beyond that first excruciating year, when the world has well and truly moved on.

The current grief lexicon does not support parental grief.

Culturally, we’re not equipped to think of grief as a long-term, permanent condition.

The language around the topic of grief focuses on the immediacy of the loss. When someone we love dies, we are grieving. When the loss is recent, we are referred to as a “griever” or a “grieving person.”

While our understanding of the stages of grief has begun to shift (e.g., grief can’t be bucketed in stages, it’s different for everyone, etc.), there is still the assumption that grief will resolve into something like acceptance and that, eventually, the grieving person must shed their cloak of sadness and rejoin the world of the living.

This school of thought espouses that grief has its place and grieving cannot (and should not) last forever.

But sometimes grief does last forever, so what does that look like?

It’s difficult to grasp the implications of a grief that lasts forever unless you’ve lost a child. This is such a terrifying, nightmarish thought that we don’t talk about this possibility when our children are healthy and alive. I know that was the case for me before my daughter got sick. What atrocity can compare to losing your child? Without any frame of reference for a loss this large, grieving parents are pretty much on our own. We must figure out how to navigate life with a completely new worldview — one that’s sadder, lonelier, and much less optimistic.

The not-so-happy New Year.

This month marks the beginning of a new decade. It’s also the start of another year without my daughter.

March 22nd marks the third anniversary of her death. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to hang on to the memories of Ana as she was when she died at age fifteen. She would’ve turned nineteen this May and the idea of her at nineteen dazzles my imagination. I can’t stop myself from wanting to meet this fully grown version of Ana, and the reality that I will never know her as an adult produces a surge of fresh grief.

That’s one of the reasons why missing Ana is just as tangible and painful as it was that first year, when grief was expected of me. But the expectations of me as a grieving person have shifted — if not for me, then for the rest of the world. I understand that, but the truth is that my grief is just beginning. Integrating Ana’s loss into my new reality will be a lifelong journey.

Parental grief is a permanent condition. But what does that really mean?

What I feel at the loss of my child isn’t some intangible idea of prolonged grief. I can’t tune it out or get over it. I will never be able to fully rejoin the world of the living, though I am functioning again and learning to find joy.

Ana was my child. She’s the one that’s not here to turn 19 this May. She’s the one that won’t meet the man of her dreams and experience true love for the first time. She’s the one that didn’t get to live. Somehow, I have to force myself to be okay with this even though my heart continues to ache at the unfairness of losing her.

I wish we would stop labeling grief.

For many people, the stages of grief don’t apply — and not just when you lose a child. Profound loss is life changing. It’s absurd (and unrealistic) to deny that there are permanent implications to losing someone who was an integral part of your life and identity.

It’s not difficult for most people to understand the implications of a permanent physical change like the loss of a limb or a cancer diagnosis. But grief — even parental grief — is something we’re expected to live through, then move past as though the horrible loss we experienced never happened at all. That’s a lot of pressure to put on grieving parents. It’s too much pressure to put on ourselves.

These days, I have a better understanding of what the permanence of Ana’s loss means in the context of my life and identity. The intense pain of losing her has softened, and my grief has shifted into something I’m learning to manage.

I recognize that grief comes in waves, much like my mother’s fibromyalgia — I have setbacks and flare ups. Sometimes grief flattens me and when that happens I can only ride it out.

Yesterday, I did this by watching videos of Ana when she was a very small child. I stared at the screen and soaked in her face, her voice, and the way she moved. I let myself long for her.

And you know what? It was okay. After about ten minutes of watching her, I turned toward the day, but I was more conscious of the fragility of my feelings and the need to be close to Ana.

So, around 1 o’clock, after I’d gotten some work done, I headed out to my favorite trail with my perplexed dog in tow (we rarely walk in the winter). It was unseasonably warm yesterday, so I was able to take a short walk and think about Ana. I felt my soul settle as I examined the nuances of the the trail and allowed myself the luxury of slowing down.

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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