About ten months after my only sister died, I began to feel things other than grief and shock. It was as when a long fever breaks: You feel neither good nor strong but you wake up and have your mind back.
I knew then I could to return to my work as a filmmaker with some ability to focus and reason. It was obvious to me before I even began what has now become “the Secret Map of Surviving Loss” what my subject would be: The subject would be grief.
Grief, in its many faces, had been the unparalleled master of decades of my life. My sister as well as my father had been ill on and off since before I finished high school. My mother is legally blind so much of keeping the family glued together depended on me. The needs of their illnesses often intensified at the same time. A quarter of a century after their original diagnoses, Dad died and then Michelle three years later.
During those years, I came to intimately know the face of anticipatory grief, how it hovers around during the downward cycle of diagnosis, decline, crisis, repeat, and how it tests one’s endurance. I knew the lightning-like face of grief that reveals in instants the true character of everyone around you. I knew grief’s venom and the way it paralyzes and numbs. knew its relentlessness. I knew its irrationality. I knew the physical nature of grief.
What I did not know was grief’s purpose. I did not know that grief, like swelling after an injury or the fever of infection, was part of a mechanism and process of coping, adjustment, and restoring balance. Ironically, I could not understand this because I was in grief.
Looking for some understanding and comfort as well as some direction, I did what so many people do. I sought out a bereavement group for the people I thought were exactly like me; I sought out a group for sibling loss.
That is what we do, especially when we are shattered. We look for ourselves in the faces of other people. We begin to rebuild with the little bit we still know about ourselves. We identify with what we have lost.
Widows seek spousal loss groups. Adult children seek out parent loss groups. Parents who have lost children seek out child loss groups. Hospices and grief support organizations encourage this self-seeking sameness by creating counseling groups along these divides.
Fortunately for me, it did not work out. I could not find myself in people exactly like me. There were no sibling loss groups available at our local hospice at the time.
Instead, I had to broaden my mirror. I had to find myself among losses of all kinds. I found a general loss drop-in group at another hospice.
I went for a year. Over the course of my time, there was a woman grieving her son, quite a few people grieving spouses and partners, and another handful grieving their mothers. Poor deceased dads in my group did not get too much play.
Although our losses defined us quite a bit, it made no difference who each of us had lost. We bonded all the same as we shared too many things; we shared grief.
This meant we were all in shock. We all had secondary losses. We all had moments which triggered intense grief. We all suffered with haunting images and guilt. We all dreaded the holidays and special days. We all spoke of signs or dreams of our loved ones or wondered if we would have them.
This was an enormous comfort to me. Sharing grief in grieving company kept me moored to the shores of the human world. I could not tie on elsewhere. The death that had forever ended communications with my sister had also ended communications with people I had known for years.
Those people, family, friends, and acquaintances, went on as I once did, with a level of intensity on the entertainments and gossip of the day which now seemed strange to me. They had little curiosity or interest in how death had touched and shaped me. I had nothing to say to them and they in turn said nothing that did not seem irrelevant and shallow to me.
I had been changed and there was no going back to my previous innocence. This is one of the many things that grief after death does. It initiates one into an order of humans that share heavy knowledge: The absolute certainty that all will be lost. Part of the experience of grief is digesting this knowledge. All grievers slog through a valley of nihilism at some point with thoughts ranging from “Why get out of bed?” to “Why ever do anything ever?”
As I emerged from the intensity of grief, I realized its great deception. As chaotic, meaningless, and drifty as one’s suffering feels, something very orderly is going on the whole time. Like the tribal initiations of old in which the young are borne away from the village and abandoned somewhere out in nature with the task of finding their way home, so are we.
First we are disconnected from our loved one who has died, then from our familiar circle and finally (for at least a moment) from all sense of our previous purpose. We are taken against our will to a strange and scary place. We are required to develop perseverance and survival skills. We are required to traverse a world beyond all that is previously known and to develop a new maturity and be changed. This happens whether you have lost a child, a wife, a sister, brother, husband or mother. Whether it is your best friend or most difficult relationship that is gone, you will be initiated.
After just a few months in my group, I felt gratitude and good fortune that I did not get what it was that I thought that I wanted, that I did not find that sibling loss group for people exactly like me. I am in the comfort and the company of all good grievers now as we each learn the lay of the land every day and our paths forward in it.
As anyone who has been in grief can tell you, no one can give you the map of the place. One can only be told the list of creatures that live there: strange signs, secondary losses, guilt, triggers, shock, and more. There is no predicting how you will meet them. It is up to you. What you can be assured of, however, is that you are taking part in an ancient ritual and that the grief that flows through you and the person next to you in group is the same as the sun that on better days shines on you both.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maryann Manelski is a writer and producer/director of the Grief Monomyth and the Secret Map of Surviving Loss, documentaries to help grievers through their loss and available at movies.survivingloss.org. For more information, visit survivingloss.org