Three years later

September 16th, 2012 § 19 comments

Today marks the three year anniversary of my mother-in-law’s death. In the days and months after Barbara was killed in a car crash I wondered if I would be able to go one day, one hour, one minute without thinking about her. As grief does, it has quieted; its hold does not intrude so directly. And yet, the icy tentacles of loss invade our lives still. As our children grow, the fact Barbara isn’t here to see them still causes me great anger and sadness. Paige started high school this year, Colin is in 5th grade, Tristan just started 1st grade. These are days of so many changes and celebrations and I wish we could share them with her.

I remember vividly when she first died that I could not imagine there would be a day  when I could tell the story of her death without crying. For weeks after she died I didn’t put makeup on, knowing my tears would undo that small effort to gain some normalcy. Then again, I remember thinking, why did I want to put makeup on anyway? Someone I loved was gone, and nothing else mattered.

Most of us have no ritual to show the world we are grieving; the anguish we feel remains mostly private. In a country where so many cultures and religions coexist, we have no universal public display of mourning status. The Jewish tradition of a torn piece of clothing (or a button with a torn ribbon attached to it) does not have an analogous ritual in many other religions. For those of us who are not religious no outward display of mourning status exists.

My mother (a psychologist specializing in grief and loss) and I have long thought a visible display of mourning status is needed. First, it is a visible way to say “handle with care” to the world. There is no way for a stranger to know the reason you haven’t pulled out of your parking spot is not because you are checking your email on your smartphone but instead is because the woman walking in the parking lot looked like your relative from behind and for a moment you thought it was her and you are sobbing in your seat.

Public displays of mourning status could also serve as a signal to others that you are part of a group. One of the hallmarks of grief is feeling alone, that no one understands. If there were some type of visible “marker” of grieving status, mourners would know that there are so many others who share their pain. Teachers, coaches, and others might be more sensitive to the grief of children if such a symbol were shown.

In the absence of mourning symbols, family members must have good communication with schools and workplaces to keep them updated on the grief process. I believe it’s vital to have repeated conversations about death with children who may not be able to articulate their fears and concerns well. Not only will this show others that death and grief are topics that can (and should) be talked about, it will also ensure that misinformation does not persist.

I revisit difficult subjects with my children often in which I ask them to recount (1) what they think happened (“Tell me what you remember”), (2) how they are feeling (“What emotions did you have then? Have they changed?”), and (3) what questions they have (“Is there anything you would like to know more about?”).

I think it’s important to go back to difficult times and discuss them as children get older and their comprehension changes. I have definitely found this to be the case with my cancer. What my young children understood at the time I was diagnosed is very different from what they are able to understand now. If the circumstances of a relative’s death are complicated, it might be necessary to repeat the story to children and even to adults. These are important narratives.

Today is also the anniversary of my paternal grandmother’s death. These two special women are forever in my heart and on my mind today.


Barbara with Paige, 2001.

§ 19 Responses to Three years later"

  • Anonymous says:

    Thinking of you. I know this has been a tremendously difficult part of life for you. Hugs.

  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Lisa. First, I cannot believe this is three years. I feel like you shared this with us so much more recently. Second, thanks for such a heartfelt and educational piece of writing. There is a lot to learn and embrace in this writing.

  • Great post on such a difficult subject. Sorry for your apin, but so appreciate your writing about it so wonderfully.
    This summer I was in the Russian Caucasus and experienced an interesting Kabardinian ritual. Each year on the anniversary of the death of a family member or someone important, the family makes a special meal – usually some special traditional dish. But they don’t just sit down and eat it themselves; they make up trays of dinners and take them to all the neighbors and friends. So the daughters of the people I was staying with carried trays of chicken in sour milk and some sweets for hours to people in the village. It seemed like a nice way to honor the dead, but also served as a reminder to the village that grieving & loss still existed.

  • Such a heartfelt post, as always.
    My thoughts are with you and your family.

  • This is beautiful, Lisa.

    You give voice to so many of the feelings and experiences I had after losing my mother to cancer. It was an ache, a void in the middle of each day. I found some consolation in looking at various religions and the ways in which society USED to accord the bereaved an honored and wise status. What is wrong with beating one’s breast (metaphorically speaking) or wailing aloud? That is what the pain feels like; yet our culture has sanitized deep psychic pain to the point of nonexistence. Instead, we have road rage and things like that…..

    Love and hugs,

  • Renn says:

    This is such a beautiful and poignant tribute. And you raise a good point about the need for a visible sign of grief.

    I have photos of my grandmother’s funeral from 1950: All the men wore black armbands on their left sleeves. Our society would never do this today; too old-world. But back then, the outward symbol of mourning was powerful, necessary — respected.

    Thank you for writing this. Gentle hugs to you today.

  • Thinking of you on this anniversary of losing two great women in your life. I agree about revisiting traumatic events with the children to check in on their emotions. This beautifully written post is a very important piece about how best to handle such a difficult subject. Thank you.

  • I’m sorry for both of your losses and for your continuing grief. The impact of loss never ends, though as you said, it does quiet somewhat with time. I feel many of the same feelings you describe. Next year will mark the fifth anniversary of my mom’s death and I was supposed to be over it a long time ago. Our society doesn’t do a very good job of allowing us to grieve. I like your suggestions about communication. So important. Thank you for the touching post.

  • Beegee says:

    I mourn with you and appreciate your insights about grief. I am a longtime cancer survivor and have lost several friends to this disease so I understand the challenges for those who live on and those who mourn. For me, your comments seemed personal for a different reason: my beloved husband of nearly 46 years died suddenly 13 months ago. I also wish there was some way for those of us who mourn to show that in a simple, recognizable way to others–perhaps I should wear a small pin with his picture. I, too, have stayed too long in a parking space–or at a traffic light–because of someone walking by who resembled my husband or because I am caught up in a song that invoked his memory. Thank you.

  • DrAttai says:

    Thinking of you and your family, Lisa – beautiful post.

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  • Am reading your blog for the first time, after discovering you on Twitter. Your post is a clear and beautiful homage to your mother-in-law, your grandmother, your grief.

    It’s also a reminder that we don’t respect grief, we don’t give grief its due, let it run wide and far and rampant and finally, in its own time, a few steps away. My mom died suddenly in February. She beat stage IV lung cancer, and died of a hospital infection. I still wonder why I put on makeup, how the sun ratchets across the sky on its daily march, how people churn and swirl around me when I’m turned inward with grief.

    Regarding public expressions of grief, you and your mother are right. Unfortunately, I think we’re too afraid of our messiness, our awkwardness, our truths, for such things. But perhaps we can display our grief tangentially, if that makes sense. For what it’s worth, I became obsessed with rehabilitating an abused dog after Mom died, and I fear that’s as close to a public display of grief as I’ll come without sending people screaming in the other direction.

    Thank you for your blog, I am reading my way through your posts.
    I am so, so sorry to read about your metastasis.

  • Sheryl Fowler says:

    Lisa, a friend today recommended your blog to me and I think you’re spot-on about our displaying an outward sign of grieving. My husband died on July 28 of metastatic melanoma. He was 49. I have 16-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, whose birthday occurred while my husband was in hospice. Less than 30 days before my husband died, his best friend and brain surgeon died of pancreatic cancer, and my sister’s father-in-law died in the time between those two traumatic deaths. I would like to wear a badge for all of them, for all of us.

    Despite all of these feelings I have commited to living as close to a normal life as possible. I make every effort to do social things, to go to my exercise classes, take care of myself and my children and pets, to regain the life I had before my husband was diagnosed in February. It takes effort and determination but I feel much better emotionally when I am focused on living a full life.

    I have an extraordianary network of friends and family who have ensured that we have had every bit of help we’ve needed during this time. My advice is: let your friends help you. It makes them happy and relieves you of a burden.

    Thanks so much for your words, Lisa, and I hope that healing for you is on its way.

  • nilufer says:

    A beautiful moment captured. Paige looks like a doll.

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