Q: I have been stuck in grief for the loss of a child and now my mother for a very long time. I reviewed your 4 points but cannot find any sweetness about these events. I am not alone in the universe in losing someone(s). It is the universal condition, however nothing good has come of it for me and there is no sweetness. The loss of someone continues to be a tortuous situation. Have you heard from others like me? — J., Texas, USA

A: Dear J.,

There is no rule book for recovering from grief. The varieties of grief are as unique as each rare human being, and it is important to honor the way in which your own grief arises, fluctuates, and runs its course…or even lingers beyond the time you’d expect. Although we have centuries of human experience from which we can see that grief goes through stages, as Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross pointed out – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance – these are not stages like chapters in a book where one ends and the next begins. Rather, they tend to weave in and out of each other, so that you might have what seems like a reasonably “good” day one day and then, the next, you are once again overcome with missing your child, your mother, or even everyone and everything you have ever lost in your life.

I do not want to let another moment pass by before acknowledging that losing a child is not a common grief. True, as you say, it is an experience shared by countless people throughout time and around the world; but it nonetheless feels contrary to the very rhythms of time: How can this young being, to whom i have devoted so much of my heart and life, possibly leave the planet before i do? It is an utterly wrenching grief. In such a grief, it is natural to turn to the ground of your being, the matrix, for support, and for you, that may have been, at least in part, your own human mother. To lose her, then, too, soon after you lost your child, tosses the whole of your grief into a whole new level of trauma.

“Sweetness” may, in fact, be an entirely wrong word for your experience, and i appreciate your honesty about this period of your life having been nothing but tortuous and bitter. You might feel supported by reading Elaine Mansfield’s reflections, “Grief and Gratitude,” in which she writes that “I never doubted that our great love was worth the grief I was experiencing, but my heart felt broken and my life derailed.” That is what i am hearing in your words, too.

You do not mention what kind of support you have during this time. Support while grieving does not take away grief, but it does allow you to feel less alone with it. Hospice programs often offer grief groups and/or counseling for survivors, and it might be worth checking – if you haven’t already – whether you have such services locally. These services are not unique to hospice programs and can also be found by contacting the counseling office of the university nearest you and asking for referrals.

Or it may be that you are asking because, in spite of having found your way through much of this grieving process, that word “sweetness” hit a raw nerve. If so, i encourage you to set it aside or, if you prefer, pick up your journal and argue with it. It may be a key to finding further depths of feeling about your losses that you still hadn’t fathomed. Finding those layers, and writing about them or sharing them with a friend, might make a difference in allowing you to move out of being stuck.

We just posted a poem by Denise Levertov, “Talking to Grief,” which has long been meaningful to me as way of saying that we shouldn’t judge ourselves too harshly for not reaching an ideal prematurely. “Give your sorrow all the space and shelter in yourself that is its due,” wrote Etty Hillesum, who had every right to speak about this matter as all whom she cherished got torn away from her. If there is “good” in this experience, you may see it only in retrospect, many years from now. Meanwhile, please know that the community of those of us who have known profound grief respect you and yours.

With kind best wishes,
Patricia Carlson