The Path of Parental Grief is A Lonely One

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m an introvert, prone to isolating myself even when there’s not a raging pandemic to worry about. It’s difficult for me to reach out to friends and family (much less make new friends) when I need companionship and support. I often don’t recognize that I need other people around until I’ve already sunk into a deep depression.

That’s because, for me, being alone is comforting. It feels safe and familiar and easy. But it can also be toxic and self destructive.

When solitude is caused by (or causes) depression rather than the need to recharge and when I stop participating in things I love and enjoy, being alone becomes loneliness.

Before March, when the coronavirus shut down everything and we all withdrew into our hand-sanitized, mask-dominated bubbles, I’d begun to push back against my propensity to withdraw from the world.

I’d noticed that my withdrawal from other people had gotten much worse when I hit the three-year mark of my daughter’s death. As the memory of Ana’s life — and my loss — faded from people’s consciousness, the temptation to stay isolated had grown.

Chronic grief isn’t readily accepted in America. I grew up viewing grief as a temporary thing, as something you get over — a thing with stages that started and ended. But parental grief is a permanent condition. This will always be my reality.

I’d begun withdrawing from friends and family before I even realized it, folding myself away from other people so I didn’t have to pretend to be the person I used to be. But, there’s another reason too — I’m tired.

Whether I show it or not, my grief is always with me, sometimes simmering just under the surface of the small talk and normal social interactions that happen every day and sometimes buried deeply, a subtle ache that comes from my new place of brokenness. It is, frankly, exhausting to carry that burden with me into a world that doesn’t understand it.

Add to this that I’m a natural isolator. I’ve been self-employed and working from home since 2002. Even before my daughter was diagnosed with cancer at age eleven, then died four years later of her disease, I was guilty of what I call “cocooning” — that is, folding myself into my comfort zone and failing to engage with the outside world.

Throughout Ana’s long illness I maintained many connections with friends, family, and community. She was in 6th grade when she was diagnosed. My younger daughter was in 3rd grade. I frequently interacted with their school community, cycled regularly, and had begun connecting with other people in the cycling community. My family is small, but there were always occasions and holidays to celebrate, birthday parties to attend, dinners and barbeques to host.

Most of that stopped after Ana died.

I simply could not participate in the normal cadence of daily life. My grief was too fresh. Everything hurt. So, I retreated, staying home to nurse my pain and try to make sense of my new identity. I was acutely aware that I represented every parent’s worst nightmare, a reminder that things could go horribly wrong.

I was the other. My otherness made it impossible for me to integrate myself back into the world during the earliest months of grief and for many months thereafter.

After Ana’s death, loneliness presented a paradox that upended my previous worldview, particularly my own identity as an introvert.

Being alone had always been comforting, but now it also caused me pain. It hurt as much as heal.

When I’m alone, I don’t have to pretend to be okay. There aren’t as many emotional landmines to navigate — like the sorrow that rises up whenever I see two sisters exchange a knowing glance or the aching emptiness I feel when I witness a family of four picking out their Christmas tree together.

But there are emotional landmines at home too, and while I have a bit more control over my environment when I’m in my house, social media has the ability to serve up fresh pain no matter where I am.

“There’s nothing like the laughter of sisters reunited,” wrote a woman on Facebook whose 19-year-old daughter was home for the holidays after spending her first semester away at college. I’ll never experience the moment when Ana, freshly home from college, will spend the afternoon her sister watching TikTok videos and anticipating Thanksgiving.

My feed — and my life — is filled with moments like this, but withdrawing from parents who are experiencing the typical joys and frustrations of parenthood provides little comfort.

I can’t begrudge people these happy moments just because they’re not available to me anymore.

But I can shut off my computer.

I can retreat to my bed and read.

I can avoid everyone, for a while.

Social media is a two way street. While it can hurt to glimpse what others have and I do not, it can also provide solace.

In the years since I’ve lost Ana, I’ve connected with at least a dozen bereaved parents. My feed is filled with their stories — stories that look a lot like mine. Witnessing how they struggle to rebuild their lives after the loss of their children has helped to normalize my own experience. It’s made me feel less alone, less other. It’s given me the courage to bring my new reality into my own life, so that I’m not always hiding it from my friends and family.

In the early days of loss, I was broken. I existed in a perpetual state of emotional confusion. I felt alone even when I was surrounded by people.

It seemed to me then (and sometimes it still does) that there was no longer a place for me in the world. Being alone, which had always offered comfort, also provided solace. I embraced my loneliness at the expense of my existing relationships and connections with other people.

I am still broken, but something is shifting. This past spring, shortly after the three year anniversary of Ana’s death, I recognized that my loneliness had become alienation. My solitude had turned to isolation. My “alone time” was holding me back from experiencing real human connection.

Since then, I’ve been making more of an effort to connect with other people. I’ve begun learning how to compensate for my propensity to cocoon. I’m reaching out to friends, making plans, and actually following through with them.

I’ve begun embracing the holidays again, rather than simply trying to survive them. I am engaging with people on Facebook more — and not just my fellow bereaved parents — even when their posts trigger longing for Ana and the life I once had.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m still capable of being part of the world in any meaningful way. But I’m not sure what that really means anymore. Living my life with two healthy children in happy, hectic oblivion is what gave me meaning in the bucolic days before cancer came knocking on my door.

As I get older, my life has naturally begun to shift into the next phase. Even though it’s hard for me, I’ve begun to seek meaning by reaching out to people and venturing beyond my comfort zone so that I can discover mew ways to find joy and connection.

Written by

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

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