The Values Essays

The Value of Grief

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

When questioned about whether grief was a Value, my response is---without placing Value on our ability to grieve that which we've lost, how do we recognize the Value of that which we still have? Nothing in my rich, challenging life defines my Values as definitively as my grief over the loss of my son, Mark; hence, this feeble attempt to put this Value into words is a Letter to Mark.

A friend of mine suggested that I heed Martin Luther King, Jr's admonition to turn my grief into creativity. My reply to her was "On my good days, my writing and speaking is the creativity from my grief. On my bad days, I would say 'fuck you, Martin.'" And I would say to my friend who loves me and wants to move me down the road to recovery, "Get back to me when you have buried one of your sons."

Dear precious Mark Robert,
Words on a page can not possibly convey the extent to which I miss you. The hollowness of your absence makes my throat ache, makes tears burn and makes my life without you not worth living.

Did I let you know in your short lifetime how extraordinary you were? How loved? How hysterically funny? How smart? How beautiful? How precious? How much you were the restitution for all else that was painful in my life?

Our relationship was delicious…and so damn rich as to make you sick afterwards but you just couldn't stop eating it because the first bite tasted as good as the last. The rock solid foundation of love we had for each other provided a stage upon which we played. We both enjoyed acting and deserved Oscars for our performances. Our bickering made others nervous and uncomfortable but it was intimate jousting for us. The intimacy always just a bit too much for either of us to bear so we both fought for the edge of control.
Remember when Eldred at The Chalfonte Hotel said, "I've never seen a mother/son relationship like this!" I don't even know to what he was referring (except the fact that you were blowing raspberries on my cheek in the Chalfonte Dining Room!) but I knew our relationship was so extraordinary that it was not the least surprising that others would never have seen one like it. It has only been since your death that I learned you openly admitted to others that your Mom was your best friend. And did I ever tell you that your love for me had qualities unlike anyone else who has ever loved me?

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion quotes from extensive research on grief. This book is her response to the loss of her husband. One sentence jumped from the page as, finally, an explanation of why your death so devastated me---in ways that all the other deaths I have endured have not:

"The second kind of grief was 'complicated grief,' which was also known in the literature as 'pathological bereavement' and was said to occur in a variety of situations. One situation in which pathological bereavement could occur, I read repeatedly, was that in which the survivor and the deceased had been unusually dependent on one another. "Was the bereaved actually very dependent upon the deceased person for pleasure, support, or esteem?" (italics mine) As your generation would say, "Duh!"

When your Dad died and your brother started on his personal journey of misbehavior and self-destruction, you and I turned to each other and grabbed hold with everything in us. As the years went by and we both went on to other relationships, other pursuits, other cities, other growth, we never lost that grasp. That's why it hurts so badly. That's why it's "complicated grief" which I prefer to the term "pathological bereavement." There's enough about me that's pathological without adding another.      

Naming the grief does not help when I am sabotaged by memories---good times, bad times and all the in between times in the twenty-five short years of mothering you. I walk the campus of George Washington University and pass the Law School where you almost chose to go because of the great scholarship they offered. It's a drive-by random shot of grief over the dream that you could have been there as student when careers unexpectedly moved John and me to DC. You would have loved the conversation and debate over my religious-political work with the Democratic National Committee and the Kerry/Edwards Campaign. You would have been right smack in the middle---arguing both sides about whether religious folks should start a political action committee. You would have pushed me to my limits wanting to obsess over the fine points of controversy.

Another drive by shooting occurs when I'm staring at The Washington Post rather than reading it. The Today Show plays in the background because John can multi-task on computer, newspaper and TV to do his morning Media Digest. The first chords---do you even call them chords in rock music---of "Bad to the Bone" break through my morning fog. It's the sound track for Matt Lauer in a segment on riding a Harley on the open road. It was the sound track for your funeral service. As teens, when you and your buddies discussed plans for your memorial services, you proclaim that you want  "Bad to the Bone" played at yours. The ministers and I agree that blasting it from the sound system in the holy sanctuary of Central Christian Church is a fitting tribute to your raucous sense of humor and Gen X sense of spirituality. So we did. Hope it was all you intended.

And then there's the anger. Anger at what? God, no. You, no. Life, yes. How can I stop grieving over what was one of the richest elements of my existence? A therapist reminds me that as rich as it was, my relationship with you was not the sum total of my life. True enough. And I don't want my grief over you to short-change my relationship with your brother and his precious new family.

And then there's the depression. Why must it hang around so long and be so heavy on my heart and soul and mind? Is it really a protective armor…protecting me from the depths of grief to which I could actually fall into and not be able to pull myself out? Some folks think if I break unresolved grief into tiny pieces that I would find peace ultimately and 'cure' the depression. While this may be true, the extent to which I have done this work in the past reminds me that it is damn hard work! But if I don't do the Grief Work will there always be a part of me that is divided from the whole of me? Or was there or will there ever be a whole me? What does wholeness look like? And, oh by the way, I'm fucking tired of working toward wholeness! Are there people who don't have to work so hard at wholeness? Wasn't being born to Violet and Clarence enough brokenness for any one person in a lifetime? I'm tired of working on this shit! I just want to have peace. I just want to not feel like a hollow shell.

Is it my genetic code that makes everything high drama for me? Am I more sensitive to what has happened in my life than the average bear? Maybe, but some would also say I'm stronger than the average bear in handling it. In fact, you said, "If a nuclear bomb went off in the back yard, Mom, you would be the only survivor."

Little did you know that you would be the nuclear bomb.


Ette Hillesum, a victim of the Nazi concentration camps, writes of the healing surrender into grief and forgiveness. His comments lend further evidence as to why Grief must be considered a Value.

"And you must be able to bear your sorrow; even if it seems to crush you, you will be able to stand up again, for human beings are so strong, and your sorrow must become an integral part of yourself; you mustn't run away from it."

"Do not relieve your feelings through hatred, do not seek to be avenged on all Germans, for they, too, sorrow at this moment. Give your sorrow all the space and shelter in yourself that is its due, for if everyone bears grief honestly and courageously, the sorrow that now fills the world will abate. But if you do instead reserve most of the space inside you for hatred and thoughts of revenge---for which new sorrows will be born for others---then sorrow will never cease in this world. And if you have given sorrow the space it demands, then you may truly say: life is beautiful and so rich. So beautiful and so rich that it makes you want to believe in God."

updated: 8 years ago


Anna DelaunayWednesday, October 31st 2012 12:06PM

This is so beautiful, and so devastating. I am sorry for your loss and thank you for sharing these thoughts.

GriefThursday, June 18th 2009 12:52PM

Brenda, I knew that you were "deep" at LTS, but I had no earthly idea that you were such a strong person to weather so many storms.  I can see that if we get you to Idaho, there will be many an evening extending into the early morning hours (and I'm an early to bed guy) discussing insights you have gained.  We hope that you and John can spend one or more nights with us, as well as with John's brother.  Is there going to be a hardcopy of your book available any time soon?  If I'm to approach Bob Kustra for reference to a seminar type presentation, I need to have something brief in hand, which he can pass on to the appropriate faculty sponsor.  The same goes for book signing at a bookstore--probably more than just at the Campus Book Store.  Bill

Thanks, Bill, and we look forward to an Idaho booking and great conversations. I will get some hard copy materials to you shortly.

I don't have a publication date on the book yet. We may actually have to make it TWO trips to Idaho---one for speaking and one for the book signing.

Stay tuned. I'll be in touch.