Wednesday, August 24, 2005

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.


At 1:42 PM, August 24, 2005, Blogger Baron Bodissey said...

Thanks for the associated material, neo. They seem very apropos.

Dymphna is traveling right now -- but I'm sure you'll hear from her later.

Since you're doing poetry, here's the sonnet I wrote to recite at Shelagh's funeral:


Of the many who knew the many of you
there were few enough who knew you well,
and of the stories that are ours to tell,
a myriad versions, and all of them true:

A gutsiness of life and love,
an eyebrow arched, a toss of the hair,
the level gaze and the withering stare,
a fist of iron in a velvet glove.

Mother and daughter, sister and friend:
how shall we cope with your laughter gone?
Too lately begun to have reached this end,
a spring afternoon on a shaded lawn.
Accept if you will this bitter rhyme,
and be with us here this one last time.

At 4:14 PM, August 24, 2005, Blogger chuck said...

My grandmother had eleven children and lost two -- one to pneumonia at about three years of age and the other to diabetes as a teenager. I don't think such losses were terribly unusual back in the first quarter of the last century. I am sure that the parents grief was no less, but still, the death of children was a fact of life that many had to deal with, nor could they stay home and grieve when to be idle was to starve. Crops had to come in, jobs had to be kept.

Without a doubt, church and family were a big help. The weakness of these institutions today is perhaps a luxury attendent on antibiotics and vaccines. If these should fail we will need to relearn old, hard, lessons.

At 5:16 PM, August 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always thought one of the best pieces dealing with parents' grief over the wartime loss of a child is Kipling's "The Children"--he lost a son in World War I and oh, my god, it shows in this poem. I can't quote it--could barely stand to read it once.

At 5:16 PM, August 24, 2005, Blogger Tom Grey said...

I think the world may become more peaceful with more single child families -- spoiled, loved, exclusive attention from parents.

Yet it may become worse, as spoiled kids become spoiled adults, unable to practice compromises they never had to do before.

At 8:18 PM, August 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I notified next of kin a couple of times when I was in the Army.
Three of four parents had heart attacks within one year of finding out.

Kipling's son had bad eyes. Kipling pulled strings to get him in and commissioned. He was killed in 1915, fighting with the Irish Guards (of whom Kipling wrote a poem). One of his friends said the last he'd seen of the young man, he was crying from the pain of a mouth wound. I expect his wound was less painful than his father's, and sooner over.
Try Kipling's "Epitaphs from The Great War" There's something for everybody.
Or see the throw-away lines about lost children in "Daughter of The Regiment" and "Without Benefit of Clergy".

At 8:43 PM, August 24, 2005, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

We do indeed understand our ancestors' grief only at a distance. They lost children, spouses, parents, with much greater frequency. Keeping the genealogy and wandering through cemeteries will often bring you up against an unimaginable grief: a mother of six dying in childbirth; three of five children swept away in a single week of epidemic. It is numbing.

It is much the same in learning about the Holocaust or the Gulag, or in my case, the persecution of Baptist friends in Romania. People endure the unendurable all the time.

I have four sons, nearly all grown. None have been in the military (yet). But each of them at one time or another has had to knowingly walk into situations of heightened danger. I recall the first time I choked out to my oldest "You may be called upon to be heroic. Be ready," trying to transfer all my thin courage to him. I wondered if I were some sort of madman to even say such things.

At 9:42 PM, August 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose we all struggle with the question of whether we want our kids to be live cowards or dead heroes.
If I were to try to be objective, it would be in remembering the maxim that a hero dies but once, a coward dies a thousand times. Would I want to watch my kid dying at the memory of having been a coward?
Which is better for him?

At 6:39 AM, August 25, 2005, Blogger Baron Bodissey said...

Richard Aubrey -- you're right about Kipling. "Gethsemane" is another poem that I think directly relates to the death of his son. At the risk of incurring Neo's wrath, I'll post it here (it's short):

The Garden called Gethsemane
     In Picardy it was,
And there the people came to see
     The English soldiers pass.
We used to pass -- we used to pass
     Or halt, as it might be,
And ship our masks in case of gas
     Beyond Gethsemane.

The Garden called Gethsemane,
     It held a pretty lass,
But all the time she talked to me
     I prayed my cup might pass.
The officer sat on the chair,
     The men lay on the grass,
And all the time we halted there
     I prayed my cup might pass.

It didn’t pass -- it didn’t pass --
     It didn’t pass from me.
I drank it when we met the gas
     Beyond Gethsemane!

At 12:01 PM, August 25, 2005, Blogger Dymphna said...

Neoneo, you are very kind. Poetry heals the soul, the heart, the mind.

When Norm Geras asked what my favorite quote was, I immediately thought of the one from Flaubert:

"words are instruments we use to beat out tunes on broken drums
for bears to dance to, when all we really want to do is move the stars to pity."

When I was able to write "Your Death" to Shelagh, my poem about her leaving and my grief, I knew I'd passed a landmark...when I get a chance I'll find it and post it on Neighborhood.

The statues are stunning. I went to your post and looked for a long time but I didn't comment. Too moved. Wish they had copies you could order..

At 12:01 PM, August 25, 2005, Blogger Dymphna said...

Mainly, I want copies so I can touch them and move around them. It's needs some tactile reference.

At 1:55 PM, August 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

- I don't know what name to give this thing; perhaps it's wisdom.

neo-', if I might, I'd like to submit that the thing you may be searching for here is 'familiarity'.

Years ago, my wife was driven quite literally beyond hope with the loss of both parents, six months apart. Numerous family dynamics exacerbated this loss, but none so viciously as the reversal of roles that had taken place during their lives, turning parent into child and child into parent in many ways. This reversal led to her never having 'left home', but instead to her remaining--to support and care for both parents (as well as a sibling) through elder years, strokes, seizures, terminal cancer, sepsis, ICU, hospice and finally, death.

Effective therapy was required to get beyond this monumental trauma and continues today. As explained to me, coping with this involves understanding that in some ways the experience was very much like the loss of a child and a parent at the same time, and that recovery required, among other elements, the passage of time.

Having spent 40 years in their presence, that presence became the normal, dependable, bedrock reality of her life. Their absence is alien, grating and saddening in every way, and the notion is that many years will have to pass without them before that absence begins to approximate anything remotely resembling normal. She needs to become familiar with life without them, which involves making years of new memories that don't include them as active, day-to-day participants.

Having spent 8+ years of my life as part of this process prior to their passing, 6 years ago, I can vouch for the validity of this idea in our case.

So perhaps the metaphor holds, at least inasmuch as time may heal all wounds, but the scars from the deepest of those will never fade at all and will never be anything but agonizing to touch. And perhaps that's as it should be.

As a postscript, and to your notes on Walsh, Lightner, et al., I'm glad to relate that today's memory-making finds my wife well into the process of turning her High School education into a Psy. D., with planned certifications in Gerontology, Transgender and Family Counseling, and Male Victimization, and I anxiously await the experience of seeing the monuments and poetry I know she will create in this field.


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