You inhabit the land of grief. You can’t run away from it, back away from it, ignore it. You can’t shroud it in euphemisms – “pass away” – when someone has died. They’ve died. They’re gone. Trying to make it sound easier, softer, gentler, does nothing. In fact, whenever I hear that phrase my body stiffens and I want to scream.
My mother did not pass away. My infant son did not pass away. They did not “pass.” They died. Call it what it is. Run into it and face it down. It’s the only way to work through it.
“The Still Point of the Turning World” is Emily Rapp’s meditation on grief. Her infant son, Ronan, was diagnosed with the always-fatal Tay-Sachs disease in the first months of his life, even after she had had the requisite genetic tests.
Rapp is sad. She is angry. She is full of questions, both spiritual and grounded. She uses words to process and delve and deny and question. She paints descriptions of her son’s first and only full year of life – of his body, of his eyes, of her pain and her husband’s pain watching him regress.
She wonders about the hierarchy of grief. Who is more entitled to be sad? Who has experienced more pain? Those of us who have wandered in these hills understand these questions. My second son died when he was five days old, after a troubled pregnancy and five days of hope and wonder. I grieve his loss, and will to the end of my days.
But I did not have to live in the land of potential grief very long. I did not have to tend to a sick child, one who I had already walked around in a Snugli, whose diapers I had already changed. I did not have to spend countless hours in hospitals with my son, wondering about whether he would live or die. It was clear, within a day or two, that his life was likely to be truncated, perhaps almost non-existent.
Does my grief therefore count less than that of a parent whose teen – in whose life was infused hopes and dreams and education and love – dies in a car crash? Or of the parent of a grown child? Does the grief of a miscarriage count less that of a neo-natal death? How to compare the grief I felt in losing my son with what I experienced taking care of my mother in her rapid, final days? Was I lucky in grief – having a mother who died in three short weeks, compared with friends who have tended to sick and dying parents for months and years?
I long ago learned the lesson that there is no up and down ladder of grief – only degrees at which you are burning up at any given moment in time. My sadness is not outweighed by others’. They are all part of a human experience, and one that we all eventually find marks our lives.
Rapp suggests that there should be a national day of mourning – not Memorial Day, a day dedicated to soldiers and war, but a day in which those of us who wander in the fields of grief are offered a catharsis, a time when we are allowed to talk about our loved ones, and our pain, without sugar coating the losses.
In Israel, on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the entire country literally stops in its tracks for two minutes, and sirens go off in every corner of the country to mark the loss of the six million Jews and others in the devastation that was the Shoah. Cars stand still on the highways. People stop doing whatever they are doing, and everyone stands on memory’s banks. They are hideous memories, those of the survivors, and no one is allowed to forget.
It is a powerful, national moment of remembrance. It is a public announcement of grief, one that allows all to take part in a collective moment of recognition, of memory, and of transformation.
We do not allow ourselves such moments in this country. It is assumed that we will stand stoically when our loved ones are buried, saving our tears for privacy. We don’t talk about our losses much, or when we do, it is for a very short period of time. We gloss over the pain, using language that soft pedals our experience. We are supposed to get over it, smile, move on, collect ourselves and continue our lives.
And for the most part, we can. There is something to be said for the psychology of collecting the strength you need to continue to live, for that is, indeed, what happens. But to bury our grief in our hearts is not healthy. It does not follow the path of the head or the heart. The anger I felt after my son died took years to abate. It still lingers.
Emily Rapp’s son Ronan does die, although she does not tell us about it at the end of her book. We know it happens, because it is inevitable. We know that she has continued to live. We know that Ronan did not pass away into that good night, quietly and sweetly, because his “dragon mother,” as Rapp likes to call herself, is here to mark his story and remind us that he lived, and that he mattered.
Ronan lived. Ronan died. He was here. His mother will tell his story over and over again, for the rest of her life, just as I tell my son’s story, and countless other parents who have lost children tell their stories. It matters. It helps. It allows us to grieve, and to move on.
It gives us space to breathe at the still point of the turning world.