Ways of Seeing: A line in time
Our trip through life is marked by milestones: births, graduations, marriages and deaths…. But deaths seem to color the world with deeper and more lasting tones. It’s as if grief draws a line that slices our lives into “before” and “after” in the space of a single breath. A line of symmetry, where the loved ones left living find themselves in the same environment, with the same job and friends, even shopping in the same grocery store as they did “before,” yet nothing is the same.
Grieving people look like everyone else, but we don’t see the world in the same way. We have been thrown through the looking glass, to the other side. In the space of four short months, two people in my household died. Two years later, I still grapple with that reality.
During the first weeks of grief, I feel as if my skin has been peeled from my body and I walk out into the world wounded and vulnerable in full view of an unknowing and unsympathetic public. Yet, at the same time, I feel a profound relief that my loves ones who died are freed from their pain and frustration, and I slowly learn that my own agony will lessen with time.
With time, what starts as a sharp line with clearly different worlds on each side, the “before” and “after” worlds, softens and certain things begin to fade. The dreaded anniversary of a cancer diagnosis or surgery may slip by as the mind selectively replaces them with warm memories of shared moments, a small item found in the bottom of a drawer, the smell of a favorite food. As comforting as those moments may be, they may also trigger anxious re-evaluation of the time “before.” Could I have done more, was I there enough, did I ever say how much I loved them?
Surprisingly, living in the “after” side of grief clarifies some of the muddy water of life. I now have no patience for frivolities. Like Alice wondering why the Queen of Hearts’ cards were painting the white roses red, I have to ask: Why are we hiding our passions and fearing our mortality? If death is the worst that can happen, and it’s going to happen anyway, why not live the way we want to right now?
Death will happen and it will hurt, but before death we are still living and breathing and we can make this world a bit better with each decision we make. I am grateful for the clarity that grief has thrust upon me. I treasure my collection of milestones because they remind me that compassion is a powerful medicine; medicine I continue to receive from my loved ones who have moved from life into death.
Teena Hayden has a PhD in agriculture, and prefers to spend her time gardening with her dogs. Recently widowed, she supports the Hospice Volunteer Services’ bereavement program. She lives in Vergennes.