Grieving parents, revisited
Dymphna at Gates of Vienna has posted a very personal and utterly heartrending essay on the loss of her daughter. It's couched as a letter to Cindy Sheehan from one child-bereaved mother to another, and demonstrates great compassion. I urge you to read it as a testament to Dymphna's much-loved daughter Shelagh, and as a description of the profound grief that flows from such a terrible loss.
I've recently written on grieving parents in wartime, but of course parents can lose their children in other ways. Every time a child dies and a parent survives it seems as though the natural order of the world has been upended. As Dymphna writes to Ms. Sheehan:
But the condition you and I share is unnamed because since time immemorial parents have dreaded this loss. It is the worst. There is nothing else that can be done to us. A motherless child is a pitiful creature and carries a life-long emptiness he or she tries to fill with other grown-ups. A childless mother is a crazy person and nothing can fill the hole, not if she had a baby a year for the rest of her life.
"Time heals all wounds." Facile words, and sometimes incorrect. I quote Kathe Kollwitz once again, the artist featured in my previous post on the subject: There is in our lives a wound which will never heal. Nor should it.
Time may not heal, but something happen over time to most parents to allow them to live with their grief. I don't know what name to give this thing; perhaps it's wisdom. It comes slowly, if at all, and I don't think it ever feels like recompense for the loss.
Kollwitz's art expressed some of her grief--expressed it, not extinguished it--and in that process I believe there was some small bit of healing. Likewise, bereaved poets turn to their art, as Cindy at Chicagoboyz discusses in this post concerning one of my favorite poets, Robert Frost, and his wonderful poem "Home Burial."
The poem deals with a couple's reaction to the death of a child (the post contains the full text of the poem). It is no accident that Frost himself suffered the loss of a child, an event from which it is said that his marriage never recovered. The poem describes the same sort of phenomenon that Dymphna touches on, the contrasting forms grieving sometimes takes between men and women, and the anger and rift that difference can engender. (You can also discern a subtle contrast between the mother and father in Kollwitz's statues of the bereaved parents, featured in my first "Grieving" post; the father is more stoic and rigidly controlled, although he still grieves.)
In "Home Burial," the man takes refuge in action, the woman in feelings. This causes estrangement:
God, what a woman! And it's come to this,
A man can't speak of his own child that's dead.'
'You can't because you don't know how.
If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand--how could you?--his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn't know you.
There's another famous poem by a bereaved parent, one I discovered as a teenaged high school student when I was assigned to write a paper on it. I remember that experience as being one of the first times--perhaps, in fact, the very first time--I truly understood that famous people of long ago had not just been statues or icons or entries in the encyclopedia, but had actually once been living, breathing people, just like us.
Until I read this particular poem, written on the occasion of the death of his first son, I'd thought of Ben Johnson as a fusty old guy who had written some fusty old play that I'd been forced reluctantly to read. This poem made Ben Jonson seem almost alive himself. Despite the poem's archaic language, I instantly recognized the voice of a real person, an anguished cri de coeur:
Ben Jonson - On My First Son
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
Oh, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scaped world's and flesh's rage,
And if no other misery, yet age!
Rest in soft peace, and asked, say, Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.
In this poem, Jonson struggles mightily to take the high road and accept his son's death with grace and equanimity. He struggles, but he fails--and in this futility of effort lies his tremendous humanity. "Oh, could I lose all father now!" cries Jonson, overwhelmed by the almost unbearable weight of the burden he carries and the hopelessness of ever shedding it. All he can do is to say of his son's grave, "Here doth lie/Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry." The laurels of fame, everything Ben the Elder had written and had given him pride, were as nothing compared to the son and namesake who now lay buried in the earth, along with Jonson's joy.
But Jonson still had his next-best piece of poetry, the poem itself, and the transforming task of writing it. As did Frost. Kollwitz had her art. And in that written and plastic art we all are reached--and some are comforted, if only briefly.
Others turn to different efforts. John Walsh dedicated the rest of his life to finding criminals. MADD founder Candy Lightner fought to reduce drunk driving. And Cindy Sheehan wants President Bush to pay.
What do most people think about and feel in such circumstances? Memories, love, faith, despair, guilt, anger. Sometimes they turn to drink, sometimes to divorce, sometimes to both. Sometimes they try therapy; there are therapists who specialize in dealing with grief and loss, and groups for the bereaved, including special ones for grieving parents. Sometimes faith gets them through; sometimes they lose their faith. But it's a rough journey for all.
I will close with another poem, a sonnet by a lesser-known contemporary poet named William John Watkins. The poem appeared in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of the poetry journal Hellas, and is dedicated to his son Wade. It's about the weariness of such loss, and the carrying on despite that weariness.
We Used to Take Long Walks, My Son and I
for Wade 1963-1993
Footsore on this road of sour surprises
whose sole consistency is going down,
this road of dips and sharp but lower rises
that lead like stairs back up toward the crown
I did not know for summit when we crested,
as far behind as now it is above
the strength I had when I was young and rested
and thought all mountains flattened out by love
that now I know makes mountains only higher
and fills the road with rock-bruised barefoot hurt
and sun that sets the shuffled dust on fire
and hides the sharp shard buried in the dirt.
I'd lay me down and join the roadside dead,
but that I see you walking on ahead.