From start to finish, my next book took four years (gulp) to research and write. But it’s finished! and it’s scheduled for publication in early October 2020.
The book is called The Aftergrief: Finding Your Way Along the Long Arc of Loss. I like to think of it as Motherless Daughters all grown up. I was 28 when I wrote that book, just learning what an early loss would mean for the rest of my life. This book is more of the long-view perspective, looking back and exploring how long-ago losses are likely to show up 10, 20 even 40 years later.
July 12 was the 39th anniversary of my mother’s death, and I am here to say: It doesn’t get easier. It doesn’t get harder. It just gets different. We don’t ever “get over” it. We learn how to live with it, ideally with grace and meaning. That’s what I’ve learned, and what so many other people with long-ago losses have told me, too.
I’d like to share the first few pages of my new book in advance. If you like them and want to read more, the book is available for pre-order here.
I’d love to hear what you think!
Getting Over Getting Over It
A medium once told my sister that our mother was living in a corner of her kitchen. Being our mother’s daughters, we took this news in stride. She’d raised us to be open minded and humble. Who were we to believe we knew better than anyone else? Also, our mother in a kitchen made good sense. Hers had been the nucleus of our childhood home, the place where she’d spent much of her time: standing at the kitchen island, prepping Chicken Cacciatore in her Crock-Pot; drinking Maxwell House coffee at the speckled Formica table with neighborhood friends; sitting at the corner desk and winding the avocado-green phone cord around and around her index finger as she settled into a leisurely call. With three children and a husband for whom tidiness was forever an abstraction, she was always struggling to keep the space clean. My mother would have loved my sister’s kitchen. Mine surrendered to chronic disorder long ago, but my sister’s kitchen is always shiny and pristine. I’d choose to hang out there, too.
My sister and I live across the country from our family’s burial plots and rarely get to visit the graves. So she placed a framed, black-and-white photograph of our mother in the corner of her kitchen between a neat row of Mason jars and the countertop range. When I dog-sit for her Boxers I give them treats from a jar and we say hello to my mom. I might let her know that her children and grandchildren are doing fine. If I’m facing a big decision, I’ll brush my fingertips across the glass and silently ask her for advice.
I have to imagine how she’d answer. We had only seventeen years together, and I was pretty much tuning her out for the final two. I’ve long since forgotten the sound of her voice and the timbre of her laugh. She died in 1981, and we never made tapes of her talking. In my dreams she speaks in an unfamiliar pitch, her words sometimes garbled, sometimes clear. I haven’t heard her real voice in almost thirty-nine years.
Thirty-nine years. I know. That’s a long time. Says pretty much everyone, ever.
Thirty-nine years and you’re not over it yet?
Anyone with major loss in the past knows this question well. We’ve spent years fielding versions of it, explicit and implied, from parents, siblings, spouses, partners, relatives, colleagues, acquaintances and friends. We recognize the subtle cues — the slight eyebrow lift, the soft, startled “Oh! That long ago?” — from those who wonder how an event so distant can still occupy such precious mental and emotional real estate. Why certain, specific nodes are still so tender when poked.
How many of us have wondered the same?
You’re still not over it yet? As if the death of a loved one is a hurdle in a track meet that can be cleared and left behind.
I wish there were a foolproof method for “getting over” the death of someone we love. So much, I do. Except everything I’ve experienced, learned, and observed over the past thirty-nine years has taught me otherwise. Since the publication of my first book, Motherless Daughters, in 1994, I’ve collected stories from thousands of women in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., Europe, India, and the Middle East whose mothers died when they were young. I’ve spoken, emailed, and met with their brothers, husbands, fathers, daughters, and sons. Five file cabinets in my office are filled to capacity with research into how the human body, intellect and spirit respond to major loss. In nonfiction writing classrooms for the past twenty years, I’ve helped graduate students and aspiring writers identify, question, and articulate their stories of trauma and loss. And for this book, I conducted in-depth interviews with eighty one men and women who had experienced the deaths of significant loved ones in the past — most of whom were children, adolescents, or young adults at the time, and whose bereavement needs were frequently mismanaged or misunderstood.
All together, that adds up to a staggering number of losses. Which is how I can report with assurance that the death of a loved one, especially at a tender age, isn’t something most of us get over, get past, put down, or move beyond. That’s a myth of diminishment. Instead, a major loss gets folded into our developing identities, where it informs our thoughts, hopes, expectations, behaviors, and fears. We carry it forward into all that follows.
“It’s phenomenal, how it never really goes away,” says author and therapist Claire Bidwell Smith. “It changes shape and form all the time and comes back in different ways, even when you think it’s gone. I’m twenty four years out from the death of my mother and seventeen years from the death of my father and those losses have been with me, in some fashion, every day since they died.”
When psychologist Leeat Granek, Ph.D., and author Meghan O’Rourke surveyed nearly 8,000 adults who’d lost a close loved one for Slate magazine in 2011 they observed — in their words — that “the alterations of loss are subtly stitched throughout one’s ongoing life.” Nearly one-third of their survey participants had experienced the death of a close loved one eight years ago or more. Instead of feeling “over it,” they wanted to keep talking about how grief had shaped their present-day experiences and how it might continue to affect their imagined futures.
“This process is a longer one than most people realize,” explains psychologist Robert Neimeyer, Ph.D. a professor of constructivist psychology at the University of Memphis and the founder of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, “unfolding over years rather than months, and involving periodic ‘grief spikes’ years or even decades later.” The Slate survey found the same. One-quarter of the respondents said they’d felt normal only one to two years after the loss. More than one-quarter said they’d never gone back to feeling like themselves afterward.
Nonetheless, when random cross-sections of Americans have been asked how long grief should last after a significant loss, their answers range from several days to up to a year. The majority of respondents in one study placed the outer limit at two weeks. Two weeks. In some cultures that’s barely enough time to hold a funeral, let alone to put emotional pain into any perspective and start making sense of a loss.
A terrible disconnect exists between what the average person thinks grief should look and feel like — typically, as a series of progressive, time-limited stages that end in a state of “closure” — and how grief, that artful dodger, actually behaves. This means a whole lot of people getting stuck in the gap between what they’ve been told to expect after someone dies and what they actually encounter when it happens.
An estimated 10 to 15 percent of bereaved individuals will experience what’s known as “complicated grief,” a state in which a mourner’s emotional pain becomes so intense and so persistent that they can’t resume daily functioning on their own. It’s a bit like the mind getting stuck on the Grief Channel. Recent research suggests that the majority of these mourners may suffer from pre-existing depression or anxiety, or possess traits that contribute to what’s known as a “grief-prone personality.” Much of the past seventy years’ worth of bereavement research has focused on psychiatric patients who suffer from complicated grief, a group that has historically tended to skew female. As a result, much less is known about the other 85 percent, the population of “normative mourners,” both female and male, most of whom manage to adapt to their changed circumstances on their own.
What comes next for them? What can they reasonably expect to face ten years later? Twenty years? Forty? What kind of adjustments do they make over time? Which have been most helpful? How do their losses continue to show up throughout their lives?
Well, those aren’t easy questions to answer. For one thing, grief is a very, very individual process. Any single outcome depends on a long list of variables and the subtle interactions between them. These include:
- one’s age at the time of loss;
- the cause of death;
- the relationship with the deceased;
- the amount and type of social support available;
- personal worldview;
- a family’s communication style;
- religion, culture, and ethnicity;
- socioeconomic status;
- historical period;
- others stressors at the time and afterward;
- management of prior losses; and
- the amount of short- and long-term change that occurs in a family system.
That’s a lot of variables, with a nearly unlimited number of possible outcomes. In addition, very few studies have tracked bereaved individuals over long periods of time to see how they’re coping much further down the road. Most of the existing research follows mourners for six or seven years at most. We don’t have much empirical data to tell us how people continue to adjust and make meaning over the long arc of loss.
Yet many of us know, from experience, that while the facts of a loss remain static, our relationship to those facts can change quite a bit over time. For example, my mother died of breast cancer in July of 1981 when she was forty two and I was seventeen. Those details are fixed. I can’t do anything to alter them. But what these facts have meant to me at different moments in my life — that part is constantly evolving. The same details looked one way when I encountered them as a fiery, self-righteous seventeen-year-old searching for someone to blame; a different way when I became a mother at thirty-three and experienced, first-hand, a mother’s love for a child; and different still as I approached and passed forty two myself. That’s when I understood, really understood, how foreshortened my mother’s life had been and what she’d missed out on by dying so young. I couldn’t have understood that at thirty-three, or even at forty-one. Definitely not at seventeen. I’m now more than a decade older than my mother got to be and I’m telling you, some days it’s just plain weird to be this much older than your mom.