The Washerwoman’s Genes

December 7, 2006

Margaret, August 19, 1912-December 7, 1961

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:27 am

Years after the death of her beloved husband, journalist Lynn Sheer interviewed psychiatrist and grief-expert Jimmie Holland for the television show 20/20. Holland disputed the existence of the now-classic “five stages of grief”—the concept that people “progress” through a series of ever-healthier emotions and finally heal from a loved-one’s death. To this expert, boxing people into a rigid concept of how they are supposed to feel after a loved one dies—and when they are supposed to feel it—is punishing, not curative. Sheer quotes her: “Your pattern of grief is as unique as your pattern of love.”

For Sheer, this one sentence was liberation: she had not progressed to “acceptance” of her husband’s death, and she realized she didn’t have to, she could stay sad if she was sad. To her, embracing sorrow was a means of reconnecting with her loved one; grief was a manner of relationship.

But my deaths came well before the stages of grief were invented.

There were no expectations about mourning then. There were no constructions around experiencing a death, other than the formalities of funeral.

This doesn’t mean I grew up in some halcyon time of natural grieving. Not at all. Around death there was silence. There was the scaffold of ritual and a busy-ness of preparations that occupied adults. And there was euphemism.

“She’s in a better place.”

“The good die young, that’s the way it is.”

“God took her so early because he loved her so.”

This was meant to comfort me? God didn’t much love a thirteen-year-old girl if he took her mother. Away. Forever.

* * * * *

The culture of platitudes was, of course, a culture of suppression, a way of rushing past the pain, of boarding an express to next week, when it would be all over. Probably it was meant to cushion the bereaved in public and permit private mourning. But shallow funeral-talk—Your mother is with the angels—was just another abandonment.

The “five stages” put a slower train on the tracks through the territory of grief, with, of course, the same destination: complete recovery for the living, oblivion for the dead.

Grief became work, a job to be done and done well.

I was twenty-something when I heard of the stages of grief. It was deeply weird: at my first job after college I was assigned to write a press release about a book on thanatology, the “science” of grief. Sitting at a desk, looking out at St. John’s Cathedral where pigeons swarmed in the eye-blue sky, I read without revelation. This step-by-step pilgrimage couldn’t be retrofitted to what I’d been through. It didn’t fit my case, for, after all, nothing did. Two parents dead, dropping like dimes out of God’s pocket of a sudden, falling forever through a hole in His pants, tumbling through infinity, a bit of silver lost, written off His accounts.

Five stages of grief would be a luxury when you’re a kid on your own. You move on. You move from the dorm to an apartment so you can have your stuff all twelve months. You give up the portion of your scholarship that pays the residence hall, but start to collect the veteran and Social Security survivor benefits for minor children attending college. You wait tables and you pay the mortgage on the family house until the sale goes through. You pay the undertaker, you pay the doctor who closed your dad’s eyes, you share out the few thou that’s left with your sibs, and you put what’s left of your dad’s life in a savings account for some rainy day.

I shed platitudes then.

I swore never to say, “passed on.” I was at war with pillowed sorrow. I would say “dead.” This speaking formed a tribute to them, though I didn’t realize it then. I honored them by showing that I knew what had really happened. They had died from life. Their children were tossed to the center. I would bite grief and chew it.

* * * * * *

So my mother is my first ancestor.

And, my father is my second.

In genealogy I complete myself. I get them back—and the others too, that went before. I have them, not the way I did, but a different way. Not such a great way—I know—but it is the only way.

Seeing their names on a page of the census, opening an envelope with a vital record inside, is like glimpsing a familiar face in the window of a passing train. The moment goes by too fast to wave, too fast to attempt any signal at all. But the trace lingers, an image in the mind, ink on a page, bits of data in storage, indexed now for retrieval through all time.

Decades have passed, but I still have grief. I look out over my scraggly fall garden and think of my Mom’s zinnias, carnival colors outside our front door, then drying stiff in the turn of the season. More, I think of her similar moments, hand on a mug of coffee, quiet in the house, children at school, the meaning of it all drifting in the air outside a window, leaves circling in a fall wind.

My sorrow transmutes to empathy as I learn details of their struggle. Instead of stunned, mugged, plundered, by loss, I can feel about them. I feel for them the way you feel for a person you know and love, whose life entangles with yours.

Genealogy is my relationship with my family. It is my grief still alive.


1 Comment »

  1. Only just read this one. Nice.

    Comment by em — December 28, 2006 @ 2:15 pm |Reply

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